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New OSHA Proposal: Pain or Profit?

“New OSHA Proposal: Pain or Profit?”

Good ergonomics systems can spark good economics.

Since its unveiling in November, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s (OSHA) proposed standard for ergonomics has sparked considerable controversy. Aside from the confusion over costs and compliance, additional government regulation is about as welcome as a root canal. Yet there’s good news: The proposal throws a spotlight on ergonomics, which can bolster productivity and quality.

Ergonomics is about "lean manufacturing," says Cynthia Roth, CEO of Ergonomic Technologies Corp., a consulting firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y. "Companies don’t realize that 20% to 30% of profits can be lost due to ergonomic issues."

A Competitive Edge

When a workplace is designed properly, employees can work longer with less fatigue. Quality goes up and absenteeism goes down. "A lot of organizations have really saved money," says Peter Budnick, founder of ErgoWeb in Salt Lake City, which sells software and provides training. Ergonomics can give even small firms a competitive advantage, adds Budnick.

Manual labor is one of the most valuable resources to small businesses, points out Thomas Armstrong, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Ergonomics. He dubs OSHA’s proposed standard a "real opportunity" — employers will get free advice on how to optimize their labor force.

Resistance to the proposal isn’t surprising. Businesses often "run with technology issues" but drag their heels on human matters, says Armstrong. He urges employers to put a priority on ergonomics, noting it "will become more crucial in the future."

Responding to a Changing Workplace

Indeed, OSHA deems its proposal a response to a changing workplace. Both on the factory floor and in the office, workers are doing more specialized tasks, which translates into more repetitive motions that can strain the body and lead to injuries.

Some 1.8 million workers in the U.S. experience a work-related musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) each year, one-third of whom require time off work, reports OSHA. Because recovery is slow, MSDs account for one-third of workers’ compensation costs each year. OSHA projects the standard will save $9 billion annually.

OSHA wants all companies with manual handling or lifting jobs to introduce a basic ergonomics program to teach workers how to avoid injuries. A more detailed program would be required if one or more work-related MSDs were reported.

No done deal, public hearings will be held this month, and the proposal has to get a thumbs-up from Congress. OSHA is gunning for a final ruling by the end of this year.

The proposal is surprisingly obscure. OSHA typically tells companies, in no uncertain terms, when and how high to jump. The proposal’s flexibility is intentional, allowing employers to identify problems and work out their own solutions. "We’re more interested in the process that you develop than specifics," explains OSHA ergonomist Gary Orr. Small businesses shouldn’t sweat it. In fact, entrepreneurs are "in the catbird seat," says Orr. "That’s what they do by nature — solve problems."

Costs are difficult to estimate. OSHA pegs the average price tag to fix a workstation at $150, but many industry groups project far higher costs. Another concern: The proposal allows 90% pay and 100% benefits for injured workers. Critics fear workers might take advantage of the situation.

Referring to numerous health surveys done confidentially, Armstrong sees more cases of injuries existing than are reported to workers’ compensation. That "suggests that people are living with discomfort" rather than taking advantage of the system.

Writer: TJ Becker