Labor softens ergo stance

After Congress and President Bush last year rejected a broad ergonomics standard, the Labor Department is taking a different approach to protecting employees from workplace-related injuries: voluntary guidelines.

The tactic is part of a plan released Friday by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that also includes enforcement, outreach and research initiatives aimed at reducing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among industry and public-sector employees.

"This is a comprehensive, practical approach that will put into place new, effective measures to reduce MSDs," said John Henshaw, assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health. "We know that one size does not fit all."

The approach has the support of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA). Poorly designed computer workstations are a major cause of job-related ergonomic injuries.

"Like Congress, ITAA rejected earlier attempts to regulate ergonomics standards by the government," said Marjorie Bynum, ITAA's vice president for workforce development. "Today's announcement of voluntary guidelines will help employers to ensure they are undertaking actions to reduce these not-well- understood workplace injuries."

Labor's previous standard, which was 10 years and $10 billion in the making, would have required workplaces nationwide — including federal agencies — to implement a structured ergonomics safety program and adjust injury- inducing equipment after an employee suffered a job-related MSD.

President Bush signed a congressional repeal of the rule just over a year ago, sending the agency back to the table.

"This plan is a major improvement over the rejected rule because it will prevent ergonomics injuries before they occur and reach a much larger number of at-risk workers," said Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in a news release.

No new money will be allocated to carry out the plan, Henshaw said.

OSHA officials expect to begin releasing ready-to-use guidelines this year that will help employers tailor recommendations and best practices. They will first focus on high-hazard industries, but also intend to work with federal agencies to develop guidelines.

With that effort, the agency hopes to accelerate the decline in MSDs. "What I'm trying to do is reduce the numbers," Henshaw said. "How they're reduced is not really the issue here."

At the same time, OSHA plans to more aggressively pursue General Duty Clause cases that target violators by designing enforcement plans and coordinating inspections with a legal strategy developed by department attorneys. Special ergonomics teams will work with lawyers to bring prosecutions against employers.

The approach also calls on the agency to provide compliance assistance through efforts that include grants for training, information on its Web site and outreach tailored to immigrant workers.

OSHA will also establish an advisory committee to identify research gaps.

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