OSHA Effective Ergonomics: Strategy for Workstation Design Principles

A Four-Pronged, Comprehensive Approach

Effective ergonomics is part of OSHA’s overall strategy for reducing workplace injuries and illnesses. Injuries and illnesses related to ergonomics, often called musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), are on the decline in the workplace; OSHA’s goal is to accelerate that decline.

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao made a commitment in April 2001 to develop a comprehensive approach to ergonomics. To fulfill that commitment, OSHA conducted three public forums around the country in July 2001, collecting 368 written comments and hearing 100 speakers; met with stakeholder groups and individuals to discuss various views on the issue; analyzed the comments and recommendations; reviewed relevant and helpful information from other sources, including the past ergonomics docket; studied the various options; and researched various alternative approaches.

Out of that work, OSHA developed a four-pronged comprehensive approach to ergonomics that the agency believes will quickly and effectively address MSDs in the workplace. This approach is based on the principles outlined by the Secretary for an effective approach to ergonomics: preventing injuries; using sound science in formulating a strategy; providing incentives for cooperation between OSHA and employers; maximizing flexibility and avoiding a one-size-fits all approach; creating a feasible program, especially for small businesses; and ensuring clarity, including short, simple, common-sense solutions.

The four segments of OSHA’s strategy for successfully reducing injuries and illnesses from MSDs in the workplace are:

Guidelines:

  • OSHA will develop industry-or-task-specific guidelines for a number of industries based on current incidence rates and available information about effective and feasible solutions. This work will take into account guidelines and best practices already developed, including OSHA’s own Meatpacking Guidelines, issued in 1990.
  • OSHA will encourage other industries to develop ergonomic guidelines to meet their own specific needs.
  • The goal is to encourage industry to implement measures as quickly as possible to reduce work-related MSDs. OSHA expects to start releasing guidelines in selected industries in six months.

Enforcement:

  • OSHA’s primary goal is the reduction of injuries and illnesses in the workplace.
  • Employers must keep their workplaces free from recognized serious hazards under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause. This includes ergonomic hazards.
  • OSHA will not focus its enforcement efforts on employers who have implemented effective ergonomic programs or who are making good-faith efforts to reduce ergonomic hazards.
  • OSHA will conduct inspections for ergonomic hazards and issue citations under the General Duty Clause and issue ergonomic hazard alert letters where appropriate. OSHA will conduct follow-up inspections or investigations within 12 months of certain employers who receive ergonomic hazard alert letters.
  • OSHA has announced a National Emphasis Program in the nursing home industry to guide inspections of nursing homes, and to focus significant efforts on addressing ergonomic hazards related to patient lifting.
  • OSHA will conduct specialized training of appropriate staff on ergonomic hazards and abatement methods and designate 10 regional ergonomic coordinators and involve them in enforcement and outreach.
  • OSHA will address ergonomic hazards in its national emphasis program, notifications, and inspections of employers in the Site Specific Targeting program, and will offer assistance to those employers in this group who have a high percentage of MSDs.

Outreach and Assistance:

  • OSHA will provide assistance to businesses, particularly small businesses, and help them proactively address ergonomic issues in the workplace. OSHA will also provide advice and training on the voluntary guidelines and implementation of a successful ergonomics program.
  • OSHA will target its Fiscal Year 2002 training grants to address ergonomics and other agency priorities, including support for the development of ergonomic training materials and the direct training of employers and employees to promote a better understanding of ergonomic risks and the prevention of MSDs.
  • OSHA will develop a complete and comprehensive set of compliance assistance tools, including Internet-based training and information, to support understanding of guidelines and how to proactively define and address ergonomic problems.
  • OSHA will provide courses at its 12 nonprofit educational partner organizations, known as Education Centers, for private sector and other federal agency personnel, and will develop and utilize distance learning to make training materials available to a wider audience.
  • OSHA will focus on developing new partnerships to implement and highlight the value and effectiveness of voluntary ergonomic guidelines and will use its existing partnership programs to facilitate the development of guidelines. Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) sites will be used to help model effective ergonomic solutions. VPP volunteers will mentor other worksites, and provide training assistance.
  • OSHA will also develop new recognition programs to highlight the achievements of worksites with exemplary or novel approaches to ergonomics.
  • As part of the Department of Labor’s cross-agency commitment to protecting immigrant workers, especially those with limited English proficiency, the new ergonomics plan includes a specialized focus to help Hispanic and other immigrant workers, many of whom work in industries with high ergonomic hazard rates.

Research:

  • While there is a large body of research available on ergonomics, there are many areas where additional research is necessary, including gaps identified by the National Academy of Science (NAS). OSHA will serve as a catalyst to encourage researchers to design studies in areas where additional information would be helpful.
  • OSHA will charter an advisory committee that will be authorized to, among other things, identify gaps in research related to the application of ergonomics and ergonomic principles to the workplace. This advisory committee will report its findings to the Assistant Secretary and to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
  • OSHA will work closely with NIOSH and through the National Occupational Research Agenda process to encourage research in needed areas.

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