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"This document was published prior to the publication of OSHA's final rule on Ergonomics Program (29 CFR 1910.900, November 14, 2000), and therefore does not necessarily address or reflect the provisions set forth in the final standard."


Opening Statement of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at the Public Hearing on the Agency's Proposed Ergonomics Program Standard
Monday, March 13, 2000

Judge Vittone, Hearing Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen:

The OSHA Panel is pleased to second Charles Jeffress' welcome to you on this first day of the informal public hearing on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA's) proposed ergonomics program standard. My statement this morning will be brief, because OSHA has already stated its position in the Federal Register that accompanied publication of the proposed rule on November 23, 1999.

I am Marthe Kent, head of OSHA's regulatory program. With me today on the OSHA Panel are: Joe Woodward, Associate Solicitor for Occupational Safety and Health; Michael Connors, OSHA Regional Administrator; Professor Dave Cochran, OSHA's Special Assistant for Ergonomics; Gary Orr, OSHA ergonomist and head of the regulatory team; Bill Perry from the Health Standards Directorate; Bob Burt, chief economist on the project; and Sarah Shortall and Brad Hammock, project attorneys. Providing technical support to the Panel members are Roger Stephens, from the Office of Ergonomic Support; Amy Miller, from the Office of Occupational Health Nursing; Tom Mockler, Adrian Corsey, Deborah Aiken, and Abu Sanusi, from the Office of Regulatory Analysis; and Dave O'Connor, Lyn Penniman, and Steve Bayard, from Health Standards. The OSHA panelists will be joined from time to time by a number of OSHA attorneys, including Ann Rosenthal, Ken Hellman, Kathleen Butterfield, Anne Gwynn, George Henschel, Sue Sherman, Bob Biersner, Ric Pfeffer, and Jordana Wilson.

OSHA is proud to welcome you here today because we believe that publishing a final rule addressing ergonomic hazards in the workplace will do more to help American workers and fulfill OSHA's Congressional mandate than any other single action this Agency could take. We believe this because, conservatively estimated, American employers report that nearly 2 million of their employees suffer work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) every year. Put differently, this means that 2% of the entire U.S. workforce suffers a work-related MSD every year. No workplace injury or illness is of greater concern to American workers and to the public health community, and no other preventable job-related disorder so dominates the national statistics and affects the profit margins of American employers. One-third of all the workers' compensation dollars paid out in this country--somewhere between $15 and $18 billion dollars a year--go to pay the medical costs and replace the lost wages of the workers hurt by these disorders.

Every Administration and every Secretary of Labor since Elizabeth Dole has recognized that a regulatory solution is required to address the problem of work-related MSDs. In 1990, Secretary Dole said:

"By reducing repetitive motion injuries, we will increase both the safety and productivity of America's workforce. I have no higher priority....Thus, I intend to begin the rulemaking process."

This Administration emphatically agrees.

OSHA has attempted to model the ergonomics program in the standard on the programs employers and workers have told us about in the many stakeholder meetings we have held in developing the proposal. Drafting the standard has not been an easy task - ergonomics injuries and illnesses have many unique aspects, both with respect to their multifactorial nature and the wide variety of interventions that have been shown to reduce them.

In developing standards, OSHA must meet several legal tests. The Agency must demonstrate that the standard addresses a significant risk of material health impairment, that it will reduce that risk substantially, that there are technologically and economically feasible means of reducing that risk, and that the regulatory approach chosen is cost effective. OSHA has met each of these tests for the proposed ergonomics program standard.

First, the prevalence of these painful disorders and the disability they cause is unparalleled among occupational safety and health injuries and illnesses. More than 600,000 workers lose time from work to recuperate from MSDs every year, and the median number of lost workdays associated with each of these incidents is 7 days. Many MSDs , such as carpal tunnel syndrome cases, typically cause the injured worker to lose 25 days of work, and many victims of carpal tunnel syndrome lose six months or more of work. When the reduced work capacity associated with the estimated 1.2 million non-lost workday MSDs is added to the lost workday MSD total, the amount of lost worktime attributable to these disorders is truly staggering.

There can be no question that these disorders constitute "material impairments of health or functional capacity," in the words of the Act. Employees with work-related MSDs suffer persistent and severe pain, reduced functional capacity both at work and at home, and, in many cases, permanent disability. A number of workers who have been seriously impaired by these job-related disorders will come forward at this hearing to describe the disruption these injuries have caused to their lives and work.

OSHA's risk assessment, which is based not on a modeling exercise but on current data reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics by employers, estimates that general industry employees currently have a risk of experiencing a lost workday MSD over their working lifetime that ranges from 24 to 813 per 1,000 workers, depending on the particular industry involved. By any reasonable measure, these risks are significant.

OSHA has also demonstrated that the proposed standard would, if implemented, reduce this significant risk substantially. Using two different approaches to estimate the effectiveness of ergonomic interventions, OSHA projects that 300,000 MSDs will be prevented among general industry employees every year in the first 10 years after the standard is implemented.

There can also be little doubt that the standard is technologically feasible. One-half of all general industry employees work in establishments that have ergonomics programs. Further, the proposal only requires employers to implement feasible controls to address their problem jobs and additionally permits great flexibility in the control approach chosen. Finally, the proposal allows employers to try a control that appears likely to work, and then to implement another if the first does not adequately control the hazard.

Economic feasibility is also not an issue for this standard. OSHA's analysis shows that, even under the worst-case and highly unlikely scenarios of no cost passthrough and full cost passthrough, impacts on average industry revenues are less than a tenth of one percent, and impacts on average industry profits are also less than one percent. Thus, OSHA has shown that the impacts of the standard's compliance costs will not threaten the existence or competitive structure of any industry affected by the standard.

In the economic analysis developed to support the proposal, OSHA evaluated a large number of regulatory alternatives to identify the most cost-effective alternative, i.e., the alternative that achieves the most worker protection at the least cost. The Agency believes that its reliance on the occurrence of a work-related MSD to trigger implementation of the full ergonomics program represents the most cost-effective alternative available. The proposed rule thus fully meets each of the Agency's legal tests.

OSHA has based this first phase of ergonomics rulemaking on two guiding principles: the standard should focus on jobs where ergonomic problems are significant and feasible solutions are available. Accordingly, OSHA has drafted a standard that reflects these principles and additionally offers employers considerable compliance flexibility. First, the proposed standard is short (less than 11 pages in the Federal Register) and written in plain language. Second, the standard as currently drafted would apply only to establishments in the general industry sector, the sector that accounts for the largest number of MSDs and with which OSHA has the most ergonomics experience. In addition, the proposal is targeted to those jobs where the risk of injuries and illnesses is highest -- manual handling and manufacturing production jobs, and other jobs that are clearly high risk because they have already caused a work-related ergonomic injury or illness to a worker in that job. The importance of focusing on manual handling and manufacturing jobs is apparent in the following statistics: fully 60% of all MSDs reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics by employers every year involve manual handling and manufacturing jobs, yet these jobs account for only about 25% of all general industry jobs.

Other requirements of the proposal that OSHA has designed to be flexible include a "grandfather" clause that permits employers who have already implemented an ergonomics program to continue to operate that program as long as it meets minimal requirements, a "Quick Fix" provision that many employers will be able to use to eliminate their MSD hazards without having to implement a full ergonomics program, and an "Exit" provision that allows employers whose programs have successfully addressed their ergonomic hazards to drop back to a basic program. The standard is also job-based, which means that employers would be required only to implement an ergonomics program for their high-risk jobs, not for the establishment as a whole. The proposal also would permit employers to adopt an incremental approach to hazard control. Under the standard's control provisions, employers may try one feasible control approach and then, if that method does not do the job, they may supplement it or try another.

The ergonomics program required by the proposed standard contains the elements that are basic to all effective safety and health programs. These include: management leadership, employee participation, hazard identification and reporting, job hazard analysis and control, training, and program evaluation. These program elements have been endorsed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the General Accounting Office, Voluntary Protection Program employers, small businesses in OSHA's Consultation Program, insurance companies, trade associations, employee groups, and thousands of proactive employers who understand the benefits ergonomics programs can bring and have voluntarily implemented them. OSHA's data indicate that about 50% of all general industry employees currently work in establishments that have ergonomics programs in place. Most of the establishments with these programs are owned by larger companies, which means that they are more likely to self-insure and thus to be aware of the bottom-line benefits of such programs.

Like all of OSHA's health standards, the ergonomics proposal requires that injured and ill workers receive prompt and effective management of their disorders by health care professionals or other qualified persons. Further, because there is substantial evidence that many work-related MSDs are not being reported to employers because employees fear that they will experience economic loss or that they will be discriminated against by their employers for reporting, the OSHA proposal contains Work Restriction Protection provisions. These provisions, which would replace the wage loss and maintain the employment benefits of injured workers either sent home to recuperate or placed on temporary work restriction, are designed to encourage employees to report the signs and symptoms of MSDs at the earliest opportunity and to ensure employees' full participation in the ergonomics program. Protections against wage loss have been included in seven of OSHA's hazard-specific health standards to date, and their role in encouraging early reporting has been important in the workplaces covered by these standards. Evidence shows that employers also benefit from early reporting: treating ergonomically injured workers early reduces costs for employers by as much as two-thirds.

In conclusion, OSHA needs the help of the public health community, of employers and employees, and of concerned citizens everywhere to achieve our goal of protecting American workers from the epidemic of musculoskeletal disorders currently injuring our workers and affecting the productivity of our workplaces. However, it is important to remember that OSHA's ergonomics program proposal represents the Agency's thinking at the current time; a proposal is only the first step in the public process. Your comments, testimony, and post-hearing briefs on the proposal - whether for, against, or in-between - will help us to strengthen the standard to make it both more protective of worker safety and health and easier for employers to implement. We are particularly interested in suggestions for ways we might make the trigger for coverage by the full ergonomics program more proactive, the screening mechanisms we use to ensure the work-relatedness of ergonomic injuries and illnesses clearer, the Work Restriction Protection provisions less controversial, and the compliance endpoint easier for employers to understand. We also welcome comments on ways to strengthen the economic analysis for the final rule.

Some of the witnesses testifying at this hearing will argue that the science of ergonomics is not sufficiently advanced for OSHA to move forward. Although OSHA agrees that all the answers are not in and that more research is always helpful, there is more evidence on work-related MSDs than there is for any other occupational injury or illness, and the research base is growing by leaps and bounds. In 1999 alone, more than 200 articles were published just on carpal tunnel syndrome.

In 1997, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed more than 600 peer-reviewed epidemiological studies and concluded that there was strong evidence of a relationship between risk factors on the job and a large number of musculoskeletal disorders. The following year, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed all the scientific evidence and concluded that musculoskeletal disorders are linked in large part to physical hazards in the workplace, and that ergonomic interventions are effective in reducing MSDs. The General Accounting Office studied ergonomics programs in a number of corporate settings and concluded that they were effective in preventing disability and controlling costs. And just a few weeks ago, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, an internationally recognized occupational health organization, announced limits for the physical exposures leading to certain MSDs. The American National Standards Institute also is sponsoring a committee charged with developing a national consensus standard on MSDs and their reduction.

In sum, the science base is strong, the risk is significant, and feasible means of reducing that risk are widely available and understood. The time to act is now, in this year, before another 2 million workers suffer one of these painful, potentially disabling, and largely preventable disorders.

In closing, I want to emphasize again that we are here to discuss a proposed rule, not a final rule. Only after we have read and evaluated every comment we receive from you and others will we develop and issue a final rule. Our minds are open on all of the issues on the table. The OSHA Panel will be happy to answer your questions on the proposed rule and the supporting analyses underlying it, and we welcome your comments and testimony into the record of this important rulemaking.


Archive Notice - OSHA Archive

NOTICE: This is an OSHA Archive Document, and may no longer represent OSHA Policy. It is presented here as historical content, for research and review purposes only.

OSHA News Release - (Archived) Table of Contents

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