June 16, 1999

Working Draft of a Proposed Ergonomics Program Standard

  • Susan Dudley

    Director, George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center
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29 CFR 1910 Subpart U -- Ergonomics, "Working Draft of a Proposed Ergonomics Program Standard"

Stated Purpose:

"to reduce the large number and severity of WMSDs [workplace musculo-skeletal disorders] employees have been experiencing"

Summary of RSP Comment:

Recognizing that workplace musculo-skeletal disorders (WMSDs) impose real costs on employers and employees, OSHA has drafted a rule that would mandate the establishment of ergonomics programs to eliminate or control WMSD hazards. However, OSHA's approach fails to address the fundamental cause of musculo-skeletal disorders in the workplace - lack of information on viable, cost-effective solutions. OSHA has offered no evidence that employers and employees do not have adequate incentives to provide the optimal level of workplace protection against WMSD hazards. On the contrary, OSHA provides evidence that (1) WMSDs impose significant costs on employers (which should offer ample incentives to reduce their occurrence), (2) employers are, in fact, developing programs and other initiatives to reduce WMSDs, and (3) WMSDs are declining.

Lack of knowledge on the causes of and remedies for WMSDs, not lack of motivation, has hindered employer efforts to reduce WMSDs. Yet, lack of information is not addressed at all by OSHA's regulatory approach. Instead, OSHA's draft rule mandates certain procedural activities without contributing to the body of knowledge about the causes of and solutions to WMSDs. This improper targeting of federal regulatory efforts is aggravated by OSHA's all-encompassing definition of WMSDs, which would likely hold employers liable for injuries or symptoms that are out of their control, such as muscle aches or injuries resulting from non-work-related activities.

Not only are OSHA's mandates unnecessary, given private incentives, but the procedural requirements and hierarchy of control measures are likely to discourage individual responsibility and hinder innovation into creative solutions. Rather than mandating that all workplaces adopt a framework that is not yet demonstrated, OSHA could do more to reduce the risk of WMSDs by facilitating continued research and disseminating the results of that research and experience to employers.