Arguments for a National Ergonomic Standard - A Management Perspective

  Reprinted from The RSI Network - Issue 36 - Mar'99 

Ann B. Pudoff
Manager of Corporate Health and Safety
Foundation Health Systems, Inc.
Sacramento, Calif.

Do we really need a national ergonomic standard? I think so. The health and safety of employees should be a primary concern of all employers and managers. Their challenge is to provide a work environment free from ergonomic hazards, through awareness and prevention: raising everyone's awareness of the risk factors and providing resources and guidance toward preventing repetitive motion injuries (RMIs). It seems to me that a national ergonomic standard is necessary to accomplish this effectively. Employers tend to pay attention when the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) develops a standard and makes compliance mandatory.

Musculoskeletal disorders such as lower-back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome, along with psychological illnesses due to stress, account for the largest part of work-related absences caused by illness and occupational disability. I see the greatest number of RMIs in locations where employee morale is very low, often due to a stressful work environment. Stress and tension increase employees' risk of developing RMIs, because of the constant tension being applied to their muscles.

The reporting of RMIs and other work-related illnesses due to ergonomic hazards has increased significantly in the past five years. OSHA expects that by the year 2002 RMIs will comprise 70% of all injuries reported, at a cost of $20 billion per year. Yet I encounter people daily who don't believe in ergonomics or that ergonomic intervention has an impact on the financial success of a business. These people commonly say about injuries, "It's all in their heads," but the facts don't support this. In October 1998 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) made public a report to Congress verifying that substantial, sound scientific evidence exists linking RMIs to work.

Many employers and managers fear that if employees' awareness of ergonomic hazards is raised, the result will be more workers' compensation claims. Initially this may be true, but early intervention and prevention through training and workstation adjustments will quickly lead to decreased severity, and ultimately decreased frequency, of these claims. I’ve seen this happen again and again in my corporation. Workers' compensation claims for which ergonomic intervention has occurred are usually resolved more quickly, resulting in fewer lost days and lower medical costs (around $1,000). Claims for which there has been no ergonomic intervention typically end up with many lost days and significantly higher medical costs ($15,000 to $60,000), not to mention decline in productivity and morale.

When developing a national ergonomic standard, OSHA should keep two key issues in mind. First, there should be a stipulation that requires any musculoskeletal injury to be predominantly (50% or more) work-related in order to be covered; employers shouldn't be responsible for paying the costs of an injury caused by activities done outside the work environment (such as knitting or golfing). The second issue that should be addressed is what events will trigger OSHA's intervention. According to the California Ergonomic Standard, if an RMI occurs to more than one employee performing identical work activities within a 12-month period, the employer must implement an ergonomic program. An incident-based trigger like this helps ensure that employers will act when problems occur.

Management needs to be proactive and prevent musculoskeletal disorders from taking hold of their work force. A national ergonomic standard will raise the awareness of employers and employees, thereby beginning the process of prevention.

About the Author
Ann B. Pudoff has been a state-licensed clinical laboratory scientist for over 20 years. For the past five years she has been actively involved in ergonomic training and program development and workstation evaluations. She is vice president of the American Society of Safety Engineers and past president of the Northern California Healthcare Safety Association.

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Last Updated: 11/03/00