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OSHA Announces Intent to Establish Ergonomics Committee

Ongoing Efforts Within Voluntary Standards Community to Develop Ergonomics Document

Washington, DC, May 02, 2002

Announced in the Federal Register earlier this week, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) published its intent to establish a National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics [1] composed of experts in the field. Nominations should be submitted by June 17, 2002.

Thomas J. Armstrong, chairman of the ANSI Accredited Standards Committee Z365 committee developing a voluntary consensus standard for ergonomics and professor of Industrial Engineering at the University of Michigan, commented on the OSHA proposal: "The proposed formation of a steering committee, the development of guidelines and enforcement application regulations regarding ergonomics are all positive steps. However, the committee composition, program funding and how seriously OSHA takes enforcement will determine the effectiveness of this initiative. We will have to wait and see."

OSHA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor (DoL) whose mission is to ensure safe and healthful workplaces in America. The agency is seeking 15 individuals from a broad cross-section of the industry who will be selected based on their expertise or experience with ergonomics issues to advise the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health on ergonomics guidelines, research, and outreach and assistance. [Editor's note: Please refer to the attached .pdf file in the left hand side bar for information on submittal requirements. The information is included under the heading: Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics.]

The committee will report periodically to the Assistant Secretary on its findings and recommendations. Those recommendations involving research will be forwarded to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related disease and injury. According to NIOSH, workplace musculoskeletal disorders are the single largest occupational safety and health problem in the U.S.

The announcement follows a statement by DoL to develop a workplace-ergonomics policy that favors the implementation of voluntary guidelines to prevent repetitive-stress injuries. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) covered this issue on Friday, April 19, 2002 and reported that the Labor Department has targeted the nursing home industry as the first sector to be affected by the guidelines with others to be identified over the next few months.

WSJ reporter, Kathy Chen, indicated "the [DoL's] voluntary approach came under fire from Democratic lawmakers and union officials who said it falls short of protecting workers from...ailments caused by repetitive tasks." Labor Secretary Elain Chen addressed the Senate Health and Labor Committee on this issue and defended the agency's preference for voluntary guidelines over binding rules that would "take at least four years to write and implement and would be challenged in court." "Voluntary guidelines," on the other hand, "would help workers faster."

In a press release from the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), an ANSI member and one of the largest professional safety organizations in the country, the organization supported the adoption of a federal ergonomic standard put forth by OSHA last year that was overturned by Congress. Although ASSE did not agree with all of the components of the standard, the organization believes in the development and implementation of an effective ergonomic system to reduce workplace injuries.

ASSE president, Eddie Greer, stated, "Given the ongoing efforts that will be required to complete OSHA's plan, safety professionals will look toward the voluntary consensus standards process to help benchmark [the agency's] activities. In that process, stakeholders can come together under the auspices of the ANSI Z365 committee to adopt private sector standards that safety professionals, employers and workers can look to for guidance in providing a safe and reasonable solution to ergonomic issues in the workplace."

The National Safety Council (NSC), an ANSI member and ANSI-accredited standards developer, and one of the nation's leading advocates for safety and health, is the secretariat for ANSI Z365. The committee has been developing an ergonomics standard to cover the Management of Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders since 1990. The draft standard describes processes and principles for managing work-related musculoskeletal disorders and is intended as a guideline for employers/management, particularly those with responsibilities for medical, health and safety programs or the design of jobs, work environments or work procedures. The document's approval is pending a public review that commenced in March 1998 and was resubmitted in January 2001 due to substantive text changes. The committee is currently assessing the comments received during the last public review.

Armstrong noted, "Ergonomics is about what people do at home and at work and helping to make those activities more productive. Division arises when attempts are made to describe adverse reactions to workplace activities, which can range from discomfort to chronic, long lasting pain and pathologies."

ANSI's director of public policy and government relations, David Karmol, commented, "Ergonomic policy is a critical issue that will affect the health and safety of the U.S. worker as well as America's ability to compete in the global marketplace. The Institute encourages its members to get involved in the creation of efficient ergonomic systems and participate in the advisory committee to ensure that the expertise of the voluntary consensus community is reflected in OSHA policy and federal regulations."

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[1] A standard definition for ergonomics is the applied science of equipment design, as for the workplace, intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort.

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