How OSHA's ergonomics proposal could affect you

OSHA has released new standards for its ergonomics program, creating a proposal, which, if approved, could heavily affect the IT industry. Find out what the standards include.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proposed a new set of ergonomics guidelines that will, if approved, require more businesses—including the carpal tunnel-laden IT industry—to manage and prevent work-related injuries.

How much will businesses have to pay to establish these new ergonomics programs? Do companies have to institute sweeping reforms, or can they patch problems as they arise? How will IT companies, with the majority of their workers handling keyboards and monitors, be affected? Here's a look at what OSHA is proposing and how it will affect your company.

Proposed regulations: background
Last November, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released a new set of controversial ergonomics program standards designed to prevent workplace injuries. According to OSHA's figures, the standards could save businesses about $9 billion annually in workers' compensation costs, lost productivity, and days away from work. Reactions to the proposed regulations were predictably mixed. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, suggested that such guidelines would be a burden to businesses and weren't specific enough. Others, like the National Association of Manufacturers, claim the proposed standards bypass state workers' compensation laws and have little scientific backing. Meanwhile, some labor groups, such as the Communications Workers of America, praised the proposal, suggesting that the standards would ensure that businesses work harder to prevent workplace injuries. With public hearings on the proposed standards scheduled to begin in Washington on March 13, we thought it would be a good time to revisit OSHA's guidelines. You can find a complete copy of the ergonomics proposal at the Federal Register. Other information can be found on OSHA's Web site.

What employers must do
Under OSHA's proposal, roughly 1.6 million employers would have to establish ergonomics programs at their businesses. While the standards would apply broadly to jobs covering manufacturing and manual handling, it would also cover businesses where employees report Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs), which would include most IT companies.

Businesses that adopt the standards would have to:
  • Assign someone to head an ergonomics program.
  • Inform employees of the risk of injuries and warning signs, while encouraging them to report such injuries.
  • Establish a system for employees to report injuries.

Employers would have to establish ergonomics programs if an employee reported an MSD. However, businesses could perform so-called quick fixes by correcting individual problems. The business would have up to 90 days to correct a problem and see if the solution works.

Workers who would have to take time off to recover from such injuries would receive 90 percent of their pay and 100 percent of the benefits while off from work. OSHA estimates that the total cost to employers, which includes establishing an ergonomics program and such remedies as fixing problems at an employee's desk, will be $4.2 billion.

What the program includes
OSHA's guidelines require that a company's ergonomics programs have six components:
  1. Management and employee participation
  2. Information on job hazards and reporting
  3. Job hazard analysis and control
  4. Training
  5. MSD management
  6. Program evaluation

If your company already has an ergonomics program in place, you must make sure it complies with OSHA's six standards or you'll need to establish the six components before OSHA's proposal is approved. Businesses also have the option of using a "quick fix" to address a potential problem, like installing a wrist rest for workers complaining of pain from their keyboards, to get around establishing a total program.

MSDs: The familiar injury of the IT worker
OSHA defines MSDs as injuries that employees can suffer from due to "a mismatch between the physical requirements of the job and the physical capacity of the worker." A worker whose desk is too high and who has to strain to use a keyboard, for example, could risk such an injury over time.

The risk factors that OSHA identifies as contributing to or causing MSDs are: force, repetition, awkward postures, static postures, contact stress (such as when a workstation edge presses hard into a muscle or tendon), vibration, and cold temperatures.

Some of the more common MSDs identified by OSHA are:
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Rotator cuff syndrome
  • Trigger finger
  • Tarsal tunnel syndrome
  • Sciatica
  • Tendinitis
  • Herniated spinal disc
  • Low back pain

(Definitions for these and other work-related injuries can be found at or at Yahoo! Health.)

Women and work-related injuries
The U.S. Department of Labor, which heads OSHA, contends that 1.8 million workers suffer debilitating injuries while on the job.

According to OSHA, 230,000 women miss work because of musculoskeletal disorders. The agency claims that women suffer 62 percent of work-related tendinitis and account for 70 percent of carpal tunnel syndrome cases.

OSHA claims that women suffer such injuries more often because they tend to be placed in jobs that require heavy lifting, awkward postures, or, in the case of high-tech workers, repetitive motion, such as using a keyboard.

How much time is lost
Besides helping to ensure your employees' safety and health, complying with the new standards could also save your company money by reducing the amount of time workers take off for repetitive-motion injuries.

Among the 1.8 million workers who experience work-related musculoskeletal disorders, such as back injuries or carpal tunnel syndrome, 600,000 are severe enough to take the employee off the job.

The agency also claims that such injuries account for one-third of workers' compensation costs annually. OSHA also estimates that workers' compensation costs total more than $15 billion annually, while other costs may range as high as $45 billion.

What's your view on OSHA's proposed standards?
Do OSHA's proposed guidelines help protect workers or place an unfair burden on employers? Do you suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome or another repetitive-motion injury? Do you think your employer would understand if you reported such an injury? Do you doubt the merit of reports that argue such injuries are work-related? Post a comment below, or send us an e-mail.

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