Feb. 21, 2000 (Washington) -- Mention "repetitive strain" or "repetitive motion" injury, and most people think of carpal tunnel syndrome, the debilitating condition arising from long-term computer use. But according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 60% of all work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) actually occur in manufacturing and so-called manual handling jobs. So even though such jobs account for just 28% of America's workforce, OSHA's new ergonomics proposal is worded specifically to apply to these workers so that employers know they must be covered.
Who are these workers? By OSHA's definition, manufacturing includes not just piecework on an assembly line but also product inspection and packaging, operation of heavy machinery, and activities like commercial baking, cabinet making, and building tires. Manual handling covers everything from bagging groceries and delivering packages to lifting and caring for a patient undergoing physical therapy. (Agriculture, construction, and maritime jobs, which have a much higher rate of turnover, are not covered as of yet, although the agency intends to address those areas of work in future regulations.)
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But a second, much broader part of OSHA's proposal extends to all jobs. It would dictate that any employer with an employee who reports a work-related musculoskeletal disorder falls under the new regulation. Once such an injury is reported and officially diagnosed, the employer would have to improve conditions for that worker and possibly also make changes in his or her area of the workplace.
It's this second part that has some employers worried about expenses and red tape. But the agency insists compliance won't be a "one-size-fits-all" affair. For instance, the new OSHA standard allows a firm to fix just one employee's workstation if it can show that other workers do not suffer from the same problem. Employers can also test solutions incrementally, one at a time, until the situation is resolved. In some cases a simple "quick fix" will suffice -- say, providing scissors with curved handles to reduce strain on poultry workers' hands, or buying an adjustable chair or repositioning a platform to reduce overhead reaching -- so long as it happens within 90 days and is proven successful within a month.
"This is the most flexible standard OSHA has ever proposed," said OSHA administrator Charles Jeffress in a recent press briefing. "It includes options to make it easy for employers to comply. "