"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."
Charles N. Jeffress
3rd Annual Applied Ergonomics Conference
Los Angeles, California
March 14, 2000
- What you don't know can't hurt you. Ignorance is bliss. A little knowledge is a
dangerous thing. We've all heard these little bits of American folk wisdom. They
sound good. But unfortunately they're not true.
- What you don't know CAN hurt you. Being ignorant can lead to pain rather than
bliss. And a little knowledge can be helpful.
- As professionals in the field of ergonomics, you know that jobs that involve
repetitive motions, awkward postures, heavy lifting and excessive force can lead to
musculoskeletal disorders. But that's not clear to everyone.
- A few people still insist that tendinitis, back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome
are just the result of aging, or normal wear and tear on the body or a little tennis on
the weekends. Still others see ergonomics not as a solution, but as a problem. And
far too many are convinced that ergonomics programs cost money rather than save
- The truth, as you know, is that work-related musculoskeletal disorders are the most
prevalent and most expensive injuries in the U.S. MSDs total more than one-third
of the most serious work-related injuries each year. And you know that the way to
prevent those MSDs is a sound ergonomics program.
- That is why OSHA has proposed an ergonomics standard. Too many people are
getting hurt. Hundreds of workers have written us asking for action. People like
Mary, a nurse in Oregon. After several years, she sustained a back injury and had
to work on light duty for a year. Then her hospital told her to find another job
because they did not have anything for her to do. Today she works at part-time
jobs in different locations and can no longer provide patient care.
- Another worker told us, "I am an ultrasonographer who has recently been fired
from my job because I had to be out with MSD. I probably would have never had
this problem if there were an ergonomics standard present in my workplace."
- Or the trucker who pointed out, "There is no protection under current law for
employees who are subjected to heavy lifting abuse." Or the electronics worker
who told us about five surgeries in the past six years to try to correct injuries to her
hands and wrists.
- Workers shouldn't have to suffer like this. Often solutions to mismatches between
workers and their tasks are right at hand-simple, easy and inexpensive. Reducing
physical stress in the workplace is not just the right thing to do, it's the best thing
to do-for the bottom line. But that is not obvious to everyone.
- Yesterday, OSHA opened the hearing on our ergonomics proposal. It will run for
nine weeks, first in Washington, then in Chicago, then in Portland, Oregon, and
finally returning to Washington, D.C. Afterwards, there will be a 45-day period
for hearing participants to submit additional evidence and data and 45 more days
to file final written briefs. That's a total of 90 days for post-hearing comments.
- During the initial comment period we received nearly 7,000 comments, and about
1,100 individuals will testify at the hearing. I know a number of you will be
participating, and we appreciate your sharing your expertise with us. We want to
develop the best possible rule, and your input will be invaluable.
- Yesterday and today, OSHA is answering questions. NIOSH and the other OSHA
experts will present testimony and respond to questions tomorrow through
Monday, and the public after that. C-SPAN 2 was there yesterday for news
junkies, but there's been little continuing press coverage. These long detailed
discussions are essential to good standard setting, but poor fodder for news
coverage. The trade press will be the best source for those who want to follow the
- It's obvious already that one of the major issues in this rulemaking is cost. Some
have predicted outrageous, unbelievably high costs. Our careful, painstaking-and
conservative-analysis suggests that $4 billion is about right. So, what's the
difference? And who's right?
- As you can imagine, I have a definite opinion about who is right! But the
difference is largely attributable to productivity questions. Those who predict high
costs are assuming that more people will be needed to do the same work.
Therefore, they expect a decrease in productivity.
- In fact, employers that have instituted ergonomics programs have found the
opposite to be true-productivity has increased. That's because physical stress
declines, workers are on the job more and their productivity is higher. That's a
combination that leads to lower costs, not higher costs.
- Of course, this is no surprise to you. You know that good ergonomics is good
economics. You know that ergonomics began as an effort to streamline work
processes and improve efficiency.
- But some people just don't get it-or don't want to get it. These are the people who
say there's no science in the face of 14,000 studies. That's simply not true.
- At this point, examples of specific solutions aren't enough. We need to remind
American businesses and the American public of the origins of your discipline.
You didn't begin as the comfort patrol. You started as efficiency experts. And
you find ways to save employers money while improving working conditions for
- We know better than to push equipment beyond its rated capacity. That's a
surefire recipe for malfunction or breakdown. Clearly, not a smart move.
- Then why would we try to push our workers beyond their physical capacity? That
makes no sense either. It's costly to business and painful to workers.
- Ergonomists add value. How? By reducing human pain and by cutting costs.
And it's time to do a better job of getting that message across to American
business. It's time to focus on the broader picture.
- Ergonomists need to put their capabilities in proper perspective. You have a
selling job to do. You need to see that ergonomics regains its reputation as a
- As ergonomists, you're not just fixing problems. Your broader mission is to boost
the bottom line. That's the basis for your profession and your services. Be sure
employers understand that you offer a broader benefit than simply correcting
conditions likely to lead to injury.
- Even as we're in the midst of a fierce debate over costs and benefits, I find myself
looking down the road-five or ten years. And I can't help but think that from that
vantage point-beyond the current political furor-everyone will realize what a
practical, pragmatic standard this is. And wonder what all the fuss was about.
- Certainly that's been the case with cotton dust. And hazard communication and
bloodborne pathogens are now recognized as reasonable approaches to serious
workplace hazards. That will be the case with ergonomics as well.
- What we have proposed is a simple, logical approach. If a worker gets hurt,
employers should respond. They should fix the problem so it doesn't result in
injury again. That's a sensible, responsible plan.
- We haven't suggested retooling or remodeling the entire factory. We just want
employers to respond to problems as they arise.
- And we want to catch problems early, before irreversible damage occurs. That is
the purpose of Work Restriction Protection. OSHA's ergonomics proposal relies
on workers to report injuries. WRP protects income and benefits so that workers
don't have to worry about being penalized for telling their employers they've
- More than any other OSHA standard, the ergonomics proposal depends upon
individual workers coming forward promptly. Employees will only do that if
they're sure that reporting an injury won't lead to financial loss. WRP provides
- As you know, OSHA's proposal covers only general industry. We said we would
focus on the jobs where the risk is greatest and the solutions well known, and we
have done that.
- But MSDs occur in other industries as well. OSHA's Advisory Committee on
Construction Safety and Health has developed some guidelines that can help
contractors. We have put those guidelines on our website at www.osha.gov under
ACCSH products on the construction page.
- The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has taken the lead in the
shipyard industry with a three-year project to study MSD risks in the shipbuilding
and ship repair industry. We're also interested in information you can provide for
other industries. We know there's more work to be done in ergonomics.
- This summer we will be publishing our updated recordkeeping rules. Those rules
will provide a clear statement of when and how MSDs are to be recorded. OSHA
will be offering training focused on recordkeeping during the second half of this
year. Those of you involved in recordkeeping will want to take advantage of this
- You know, everyone worried about how Year 2000 would begin. As it turned out,
the year opened with some colorful fireworks and very few computer problems.
And everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
- Our ergonomics standard will be the same way-lots of worries ahead of time,
some fireworks at the beginning. But I expect a pragmatic adoption by American
business of ergonomics programs. We know these programs work. You know
these programs work. It's only a matter of tapping the creativity and ingenuity of
American business to tailor programs appropriate to the workplaces where they are
- On average, every day 865 Americans experience one of these painful injuries-and
about 290 have to take time off to recover. MSDs waste time and money. They
can disable bodies and destroy lives. It's past time we took action to prevent them.
- I thank you for your support and encouragement. I welcome your participation in
our rulemaking. And I look forward to working with you in the future as we seek
to solve the problems that lead to MSDs.