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Businesses that previously did not come under OSHA affected by ergonomics regulations

New ergonomic standards changing workplaces

Office environments in the past haven’t been much affected by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. But that is no longer the case now that OSHA’s new ergonomic standards have gone into effect.

“There is definitely potential for this area (ergonomics) to have application in areas where OSHA would not have had routine activity in the past,” said Jessie Baynes, assistant area director for OSHA in Jackson. “We have received calls about the new standard, so certain groups are aware of it.”

Baynes suggests that businesses unfamiliar with the ergonomic standards get up to speed first by visiting the OSHA Web site, www.osha.gov. The site includes a wealth of information about what ergonomics is, and what businesses must do to comply with the regulations.

“The standard itself is relatively straightforward,” Baynes said. “If you have any particular questions after you have had the opportunity to review it, you can contact our area office.”

The telephone number is (601) 965-4606. Assistance is also available from the Mississippi State University Center for Safety and Health, (601) 987-3981, which is funded by a federal grant to provide assistance for small- and medium-sized in complying with OSHA regulations.

Inspections can help

OSHA is not allowed to come to a work site and make inspections to help businesses comply with the new ergonomic standards or other OSHA standards. OSHA’s responsibility is to enforce safety laws. So if OSHA inspects a workplace and finds violations, the business can receive a citation andor be fined. However, the Center for Safety and Health can conduct inspections to help businesses comply with the law.

“They are an excellent resource and should be used as often as possible,” Baynes said. “They can come in like the federal OSHA and do inspections. The difference is they won’t issue citations and give penalties. They are consultants. People are really missing out if they aren’t aware of that service.”

Ergonomics is defined as the study of human capabilities and the application of that information in designing products, tools and equipments. Ergonomists design worktasks, workstations and work environments for safety and efficiency.

The new ergonomic standards have been described as one of the most important pieces of labor legislation in 30 years. OSHA says that 1.8 million workers in the U.S. have health problems caused by repetitive motion jobs including typing, gardening and sewing.

60 million workers affected

The guidelines take affect in the middle of January, and are being phased in over a three-year period. They require an estimated 5.5 million workplaces in the country employing 60 million people to provide free medical care to workers with musculoskeletal disorders. The employees must provide injured employees with up to 90 days of sick leave.

Employers are also required to design and implement ergonomics programs, educate workers about the symptoms and risks of cumulative trauma disorders and move people to lighter jobs if they can’t perform tasks.

The standards are being challenged in court by business organizations which say the guidelines will be too costly to implement and won’t solve the problems.

“It’s going to cost money with no impact on safety,” said Pat Cleary, vice president of human resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.

Costs too high?

While the government has estimated implementation costs at $4.5 billion per year, industry groups fear costs could run far higher than that. The American Trucking Association estimates costs to trucking at $6 billion annually, and food distributors estimate the cost to their members at $26 billion per year. The Employment Policy Foundation estimates the cost to be $100 billion a year for all businesses. OSHA claims that the regulations will actually save companies $9.1 billion per year while sparing workers from pain and possible long-term disability. “The ergonomics programs improve productivity, and result in less workers’ compensation, less employee turnover and less time loss,” said Charles Jeffress, who heads OSHA.

With so many businesses now heavily dependent on computers, proper ergonomics for computers users will be a major issue. OSHA considers it potentially hazardous to use a keyboard or mouse in a steady manner for more than four hours a day. Also considered hazardous are kneeling or squatting for more than two hours a day, lifting more than 75 pounds at one time, pushing or pulling with more than 20 pounds of initial force and using tools with high vibration levels for more than 30 minutes during a day.

Help available

Help on developing an ergonomics program is available from a variety of sources. Hospitals and other health care providers provide ergonomics consulting, as does Mississippi State University.

Greg Trussell, a physical therapist and part owner of Genesis Physical Therapy, Ridgeland, said initially businesses will probably use consultants to develop an ergonomics program. But as time goes on, it is likely that employees such as safety managers will handle responsibilities for the program.

“I think that these standards are basically what a lot of good employers have been trying to do for years,” Trussell said. “The workplaces that have for so long tried to operate under OSHA standards will be ahead, and won’t have to produce a program from ground zero.”

When considering credentials for hiring a consultant, Trussell recommends health care providers which have an established background providing ergonomics consulting. He said physicians who are well versed in industrial medicine are a good resource for referrals to industrial therapists or ergonomic specialists.

Dr. Lesia Crumpton-Young, associate dean of engineering at Mississippi State University, whose specialty is ergonomics and human factors engineer, suggests that businesses work proactively to develop ergonomic solutions.

“The standard is new in terms of what it covers. It is different from what OSHA has traditionally impacted, and it will impact environments that traditionally didn’t have to consider OSHA standards,” Crumpton-Young said. “This standard specifically looks at occupations with high risk of cumulative trauma disorders, so that is why office environments are also places where we must have good ergonomics designs and standards in place.”

Getting started

Crumpton-Young said that most company executives don’t have an idea how to get started setting up an ergonomics programs. They know it is important, and know they should start, but aren’t sure how to begin.

Next week in MBJ, in a continuing series of informative articles on the ergonomics standards, Crumpton-Young with share advice on getting started setting up an ergonomics program. Future articles will also look at good ergonomics practices to prevent cumulative trauma disorders in different types of workplaces.

Crumpton-Young said businesses shouldn’t be alarmed about the cost of an ergonomics program. Many of the recommendation are low or no cost, and she says that improving ergonomics can make for a happier, healthier and more productive work force.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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