OSHA Issues Final Ergonomics Standard

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is issuing a final Ergonomics Program standard (29 CFR 1910.900) that becomes effective on January 16, 2001. This standard addresses the significant risk of employee exposure to ergonomic risk factors in jobs in general industry workplaces. Exposure to ergonomic risk factors on the job leads to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) of the upper extremities, back, and lower extremities. Every year, nearly 600,000 MSDs that are serious enough to cause time off work are reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics by general industry employers, and evidence suggests that an even larger number of non-lost worktime MSDs occur in these workplaces every year.

The standard contains an “action trigger,” which identifies jobs with risk factors of sufficient magnitude, duration, or intensity to warrant further examination by the employer. This action trigger acts as a screen. When an employee reports an MSD, the employer must first determine whether the MSD is an MSD incident, defined by the standard as an MSD that results in days away from work, restricted work, medical treatment beyond first aid, or MSD symptoms or signs that persist for seven or more days.

Once this determination is made, the employer must determine whether the employee's job has risk factors that meet the standard's action trigger. The risk factors addressed by this standard include repetition, awkward posture, force, vibration, and contact stress. If the risk factors in the employee's job do not exceed the action trigger, the employer does not need to implement an ergonomics program for that job.

If an employee reports an MSD incident and the risk factors of that employee's job meet the action trigger, the employer must establish an ergonomics program for that job. The program must contain the following elements: hazard information and reporting, management leadership and employee participation, job hazard analysis and control, training, MSD management, and program evaluation. The standard provides the employer with several options for evaluating and controlling risk factors for jobs covered by the ergonomics program, and provides objective criteria for identifying MSD hazards in those jobs and determining when the controls implemented have achieved the required level of control.

The final standard would affect approximately 6.1 million employers and 102 million employees in general industry workplaces.  Employers in these workplaces would be required over the ten years following the promulgation of the standard to control approximately 18 million jobs with the potential to cause or contribute to covered MSDs.

OSHA estimates that the final standard would prevent about 4.6 million work-related MSDs over the next 10 years, have annual benefits of approximately $9.1 billion, and impose annual compliance costs of $4.5 billion on employers. On a per-establishment basis, this equals approximately $700; annual costs per problem job fixed are estimated at $250.

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) currently account for one-third of all occupational injuries and illnesses reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) by employers every year. Although the number of MSDs reported to the BLS, like all occupational injuries and illnesses, has declined by more than 20 percent since 1992, these disorders have been the largest single job-related injury and illness problem in the United States for the last decade, consistently accounting for 34 percent of all reported injuries and illnesses.

In 1997, employers reported a total of 626,000 lost worktime MSDs to the BLS, and these disorders accounted for $1 of every $3 spent for workers' compensation in that year. This means that employers are annually paying more than $15 billion in workers' compensation costs for these disorders.  Other expenses associated with work-related MSDs, such as the costs of training new workers, may increase this total to $45 billion a year.

Workers with severe MSDs often face permanent disability that prevents them from returning to their jobs or handling simple, everyday tasks like combing their hair, picking up a baby, or pushing a shopping cart. For example, workers who must undergo surgery for work-related carpal tunnel syndrome often lose six months or more of work.

Thousands of companies have taken action to address and prevent these problems. OSHA estimates that 46 percent of all employees but only 16 percent of all workplaces in general industry are already protected by an ergonomics program, because their employers have voluntarily elected to implement an ergonomics program. (The difference in these percentages shows that many large companies, who employ the majority of the workforce, already have these programs, and that many smaller employers have not yet implemented them.) Based on its review of the evidence in the record as a whole, OSHA concludes that the final standard is needed to protect employees in general industry workplaces who are at significant risk of incurring a work-related musculoskeletal disorder but are not currently protected by an ergonomics program.

A substantial body of scientific evidence supports OSHA's effort to provide workers with ergonomic protection. This evidence strongly supports two basic conclusions: (1) There is a positive relationship between work-related musculoskeletal disorders and employee exposure to workplace risk factors, and (2) ergonomics programs and specific ergonomic interventions can substantially reduce the number and severity of these injuries.

In 1998, the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences found a clear relationship between work-related musculoskeletal disorders and ergonomic interventions and a decrease in the number and severity of such disorders. According to the Academy, “Research clearly demonstrates that specific interventions can reduce the reported rate of musculoskeletal disorders for workers who perform high-risk tasks”.

A scientific review of hundreds of peer-reviewed studies involving workers with MSDs by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH 1997) also supports this conclusion. The evidence, which is comprised of peer-reviewed epidemiological, biomechanical and pathophysiological studies as well as other published evidence, includes:

Taken together, this evidence indicates that:

As with any scientific field, research in ergonomics is ongoing. The National Academy of Sciences is currently undertaking another review of the science in order to expand on its 1998 study. OSHA has examined all of the research results in the record of this rulemaking in order to ensure that the final Ergonomics Program standard is based on the best available and most current evidence. Although more research is always desirable, OSHA finds that more than enough evidence already exists to demonstrate the need for a final standard. In the words of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the world's largest occupational medical society, “there is an adequate scientific foundation for OSHA to proceed and, therefore, no reason for OSHA to delay the rulemaking process.”

Much literature and technical expertise on ergonomics already exists and is available to employers, both through OSHA and a variety of other sources. Information is available from OSHA's ergonomics Web page, which can be accessed from OSHA's World Wide Web site at http://www.osha.gov by scrolling down and clicking on “Ergonomics”.  Many publications, informa-tional materials and training courses, are available from OSHA through Regional Offices, OSHA-sponsored educational centers, OSHA's state consultation programs for small businesses, and through the Web page.  OSHA's state consultation programs, which will provide free on-site consultation services to employers requesting help in implementing their ergonomics programs and OSHA-developed compliance assistance materials are available as non-mandatory appendices to the standard.  Electronic compliance assistance training materials (e-cats) on specific tasks (e.g., lifting) or work environments (e.g., nursing homes) are available.  OSHA is also making several publications available on the web, such as the Easy Ergonomics Booklet, Fact Sheets, and so on.

In this final standard, OSHA has relied on its own substantial experience with ergonomics programs, the experience of private firms and insurance companies, and the results of research studies conducted during the last 30 years. Those experiences clearly show that: (1) ergonomics programs are an effective way to reduce occupational MSDs; (2) ergonomics programs have consistently achieved that objective; (3) OSHA's standard is consistent with these programs; and (4) the standard is firmly grounded in the OSH Act and OSHA policies and experience. The primary lesson to be learned is that employers with effective, well-managed ergonomics programs achieve significant reductions in the severity and number of work-related MSDs that their employees experience. These programs also generally improve productivity and employee morale and reduce employee turnover and absenteeism.