OSHA's Ergo Standard

By Jenn Hess, Ink World Associate Editor | 09.02.05

Although there is considerable opposition building against OSHA's standard, it could be approved and implemented as early as 2001. Do you know what the standard says and how it will affect your business and the industry?

Ink manufacturers, printers and suppliers might be familiar with the issue of ergonomics and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) proposed ergonomics standard, or maybe you haven’t a clue what ergonomics is. If that is the case, you might want to start taking notes. Ergonomics is a major issue that will significantly impact your industry in the near future.

For starters, ergonomics is the scientific study of human work. One of the focuses of ergonomics is reducing the number of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) by adapting the work to fit the person instead of forcing the person to adapt to the work.

To prevent a further rise in the number of MSDs reported each year, OSHA has proposed an ergonomics standard that would require companies to set up an ergonomics program that would focus on how to prevent, evaluate and manage work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Although this might seem like a good idea to some, many within the business world, including the ink manufacturing and printing industries, disagree.

“It’s vague, very costly, voluminous, limitless, difficult to understand, has many legal ramifications, will destroy early return to work programs, and will be a nightmare to maintain,” said Gary Reniker, corporate director of safety, INX International.

One point of contention is that there isn’t enough scientific information to support an ergonomics standard. “There is very little scientific information about what causes injuries and how to prevent them,” said Wendy Lechner, legislative director, Printing Industries of America (PIA). “We have so little information on which things trigger musculo-skeletal injuries and what solves ergonomic problems. Until we have reliable information, we are subject to the views of an OSHA inspector.”

“In fact, the only thing virtually all sides of the debate are able to agree on is that no one really knows,” said George Fuchs, environmental affairs manager of the National Association for Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM). “It remains a mystery at what point, if any, a job task can cause a disorder. How then can we mandate a ‘fix,’ if we don’t even know which fixes would work? In the absence of sound science, an ergonomic regulation effectively assumes that every workplace, every job is a potential disorder waiting to happen. NAPIM believes that this type of regulation would give OSHA unprecedented authority over each and every private business.”

What the OSHA Standard Says
To best understand why many businesses and associations are up in arms over the OSHA standard, it’s necessary to see what exactly the standard says. OSHA has identified six elements for a full ergonomics program – management leadership and employee participation, hazard information and reporting, job hazard analysis and control, training, MSD management and program evaluation. The program set up by the employer is intended to be job-based, covering a specific job where the risk of developing an MSD exists and jobs like it that expose other workers to the same hazard. According to OSHA, ergonomics programs need not cover all the jobs at the workplace.

The standard would require general industry employers to address ergonomic issues for manual handling or manufacturing jobs. Employers would also need to fix other jobs where employees experience work-related musculoskeletal disorders. OSHA estimates that 1.6 million employers would be required to implement a basic ergonomics program. Under the standard, a basic ergonomics program requires assigning someone to be responsible for ergonomics, providing information to employees on the risk of injuries, signs and symptoms to watch for and the importance of reporting problems early; and setting up system for employees to report signs and symptoms.

If one or more work-related MSDs occurs, a full ergonomics program would then be necessary. A full program is the basic program as well as job hazard analysis and control, training, MSD management, program evaluation and recordkeeping.

Reading and understanding this standard is no easy task. OSHA reports that it will take between one and three hours to read the standard, which industry officials disagree with. “OSHA has misrepresented the cost and time needed to implement the standard,” said Ms. Lechner. “One of our members testified that it took him 12 hours to read the OSHA standard, and he was more confused after reading the standard.”

Industry Reaction
Adopting one ergonomics standard that every industry has to comply with is considered to be impossible. “OSHA’s draft proposal is really a one size fits all standard that does not reflect the circumstances in individual work places,” said Ms. Lechner. “The OSHA standard isn’t even something we can work from. It goes much further than a basic ergonomics standard.”

According to a statement released by Charles N. Jeffress, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, the OSHA standard can be adapted to fit a particular industry or company. “This proposal includes some unique provisions to expand flexibility for employers because one size doesn’t fit all,” said Mr. Jeffress. “We’ve given employers a Quick Fix option and included a grandfather clause – both designed to limit what employers need to do while effectively protecting workers. Three-quarters of general industry employers would not need to do anything until a documented, work-related injury actually occurs.”

The quick fix option is designed for problem jobs that can be fixed right away. Included in this solution is prompt care for an injured employee, work with the employee to eliminate the MSD hazard within 90 days, verify that the fix worked within another 30 days and keep a record of quick fix controls. If the fix fails or another MSD of the same type occurs, an employer would be required to establish a full ergonomics program.

Mr. Reniker suggested making the entire standard similar to the Quick Fix option. “The inclusion of the quick fix option within the rule more closely mirrors what the entire rule should be,” said Mr. Reniker. “Simply, locate the problem areas and take care of them. If they cannot be tended to quickly, then a reasonable time line for correction should be quickly drawn up, then implemented over time.”

“It is important for OSHA to work to improve ergonomics in the workplace, but it is not important or effective to issue a single national standard on ergonomics,” said Dennis Sankot, regulatory compliance manager, Color Converting Industries. “About one-third of injuries in the workplace are musculoskeletal related. This is definitely an issue that demands attention. But the effectiveness of a national standard by OSHA on this issue is questionable. This is a very difficult issue for OSHA to regulate and industry to address.”

What about a basic program that addresses how each company is handling their ergonomics issues? “My suggestion would be that we go back to something that is more general: a basic program that identifies what ergonomic issues are found at a company and how the company is addressing them,” said David Currier, safety and industrial hygiene specialist, Flint Ink Corporation. “There are a lot of gray areas in the OSHA standard, many items, words and phrases are not defined, if defined at all. I see a lot of battles between companies and OSHA inspectors. The standard needs to be flexible because there isn’t a single fix for all issues.”

Paul Farber, environmental regulatory manager at Kerley Ink, said, “I would rather see a voluntary ergonomics program developed and tried out before attempting to promulgate a standard. The problem that I saw with the standard as OSHA was attempting to promulgate was that it was a reactive, rather than a proactive standard,” continued Mr. Farber. “It said that ‘If your incidence of repetitive injury is high then you must institute an ergonomics program and document its’ success.’ The problem is that it is difficult to determine if an injury is ‘normal’ due to some stress or strain that a worker may have undergone, or was due to poor ergonomics. I would have rather seen some guidelines issued that had, as their aim, the reduction of the conditions that cause repetitive injuries.”

Another alternative proposed by the PIA to OSHA’s ergonomics standard is the establishment of guidelines that would assist employers in improving working conditions. “There are other ways to come up with solutions than to implement a standard,” said Ms. Lechner. “We think that the next best step until we have scientific answers is to bring together different groups such as printers, OSHA representatives and ergonomists and try to develop solutions that everyone will agree on.”

“Each industry is different and requires a different approach,” added Mr. Sankot. “Develop a different approach for specific industries with specific problems.”

Ergonomics and the Ink Industry
When all is said and done, just how will an ink manufacturer be able to comply with the OSHA standards and not have to fear being fined? Mr. Reniker said every facet of the ink industry will be affected. “Unless the ink manufacturer’s operation is totally automated, it would come under the umbrella of this proposed ergo standard,” explained Mr. Reniker. “This accounts for the employees taking the ink order to the lab, matching the color, batch-weighing, mixing, milling and even the shipping clerks who pack and deliver the ink to the customer.”

But in all reality, going to a fully automated system isn’t feasible now or in the near future for most ink manufacturers. Others have opted instead to implement small, but hopefully significant, changes. Mr. Currier said Flint Ink is trying to do more work in large batches so less manual handling is required. “I don't think total automation is the only way to comply with the OSHA standard as it is written now,” added Mr. Currier. “Ergonomic issues can be dealt with good engineering changes, education and management and worker involvement.”

Although an ink company’s primary occupation is the manufacturing of ink, Mr. Fuchs said they will still be obligated by the standard for employees in non-ink manufacturing activities such as office employees, mechanics and maintenance personnel.

Other aspects of the standard that NAPIM expects to be trouble for ink manufacturers include the trigger mechanism for the standard being one recordable work-related incident. “This is a very low threshold for obligating an employer to implement this complex, record-intensive standard,” said Mr. Fuchs. “Even OSHA’s quick fix is not a solution to the problem – once an employer is in the program the quick fix criteria are very similar to the requirements of the full program.”

Effects on Injuries and Workers’ Compensation
While OSHA contends an ergonomics standard would lower the number of work-related injuries, opponents of the standard claim the exact opposite will happen. Believed to be too obscure, and not having any room to differentiate between injuries that might be related to a person’s lifestyle or result of a weekend activity and those suffered at work, the standard might actually increase the number of injuries reported at the work place.

“We also think that this new standard is going to result in an increase in the numbers of injuries reported – many will be legitimate while others will not be,” said Ms. Lechner. “The threshold for reporting potential injuries, such as tingling and redness, will lead to many more complaints.”

OSHA does not offer an employer any way to distinguish between injuries that happen on-site or off-site. And even if the employer suspects that this injury was not caused by working conditions, the standard prohibits him from asking a health care administrator for the cause of the injury.

“The standard does not provide a coherent definition/mechanism for determining whether an MSD has occurred especially with respect to determining that it was not caused by a single instantaneous event,” explained Mr. Fuchs. “Even worse is the fact that the MSD is covered by the standard even if it was not caused by a work-related event (e.g. the job aggravates an existing off-the-job injury). Thus employers are only allowed to consider whether ‘in theory’ the work activity could have caused the injury and thus be required to ‘fix’ a job that did not in fact cause any injury.”

Injuries such as those affecting the back could be caused by the littlest things, such as lifting groceries or stretching to change a light bulb at home. There is no direct correlation between job responsibilities and back injuries. “The standard states that a doctor can’t tell an employer that the injury is related to their employee's lifestyle, even though back injuries are commonly related to a person’s weight.,” said Mr. Currier. “Under the OSHA standard, the doctor cannot tell us what factors could have contributed to the injury, outside of the workplace, such as life style, hobbies, other disease states. All of these items go into managing a medical case, with out this information workers' comp providers and the employer can not manage the claim/case. There needs to be some way of making that dividing line.”

Related to the increase in the number of injuries suffered at work is the issue of workers’ compensation. Some industry officials who spoke with Ink World expressed fear that OSHA was overstepping its bounds with its work restriction clause.

“OSHA is trying to do what workers’ comp does by putting in the verbiage they have”,” said Mr. Currier. “They are basically saying that worker’s comp does not exist. Workers’ compensation will definitely be effected if the standard is adopted as it is written. It will impede the worker’s compensation system. A few states have already said they are going to sue. One of the biggest problem will be with worker’s compensation and job protection /removal. I do not believe the standard will pass with the current job protection/removal and medical ‘gag’ order clauses in place.”

“The work restriction protection clause will be especially troublesome in that it will require employers to continue to pay an employee 90 percent of his salary (after removal from the job) for up to six months on the report of subjective symptoms that may or may not be work-related,” said Mr. Fuchs.

“This high wage replacement level is an invitation for abuse,” added Ms. Lechner. “Many employees will stay out longer, resulting in huge increases in workers’ compensation costs that could jeopardize the solvency of the state workers’ compensation trust funds.”

“Most employers have familiarity with abuses in the workers compensation system,” said Mr. Fuchs. “The mandated medical management provisions of this standard for up to six months are ripe for abuse.”

Also at issue is the comparison in benefit packages for someone who is injured at work compared to someone who suffers an ergonomics injury. “Some lawyers may try to file other worker's comp claims as ergonomic injuries to obtain better protection/ benefits for their clients,” said Mr. Currier. “A small group will figure this out very quickly.”

Will Size Matter?
Although ink companies come many sizes, that won’t make much of a difference when OSHA’s standard goes into affect. Ms. Lechner said the size of the company will only make a difference in terms of when the company feels the impact of the standard. “Larger companies will be better able to adapt to the OSHA standard and make the changes in order to meet the requirements,” said Ms. Lechner. “Large companies will be able to afford the ergonimists, so their expenses will come early on when they make the necessary changes to meet the OSHA standard. Smaller companies are not as likely to make the changes early on, so they will be hit hardest when they are fined for not adapting to the standard.”

“The bigger companies will be able to deal with the standard and roll along,” said Mr. Currier. “They have the professional assistance available. Smaller companies may not know that the OSHA standard is out there or what to do with it. Some of their only line of communication about what is happening in the industry is associations and their magazines or newsletters, and there are probably some who do not even receive them.”

Once they are aware of the standard, understanding and implementing it will be no easy task. “It would be disastrously costly to the smaller ink manufacturers who are having a hard enough time just keeping up with the present OSHA training requirements (HazCom, lockout/tagout, forklift, etc.),” added Mr. Reniker.

Implementing an effective ergonomics standard will require a significant financial commitment. “There will be a significant cost to adequately address ergonomic issues in the workplace,” said Mr. Sankot. “For any company, the financial investment to adequately address ergonomics is significant. For a smaller company, this issue could become a financial burden.”

“I believe that the ergonomic standard will result in ink manufacturers having to turn to ergonomics consultants and this will be an economic hardship on the smaller manufacturers,” said Mr. Farber.

NAPIM fears that OSHA’s ergonomics standard could force smaller ink companies out of business. “NAPIM also believes that OSHA has grossly underestimated the cost of implementing the standard for small business,” said Mr. Fuchs. “Small businesses would be hit the hardest by such a regulation because most of them just can neither afford to invest in expensive new experimental equipment, nor can they afford the tremendous burden of deciphering another complex and confusing regulation. Many small businesses would simply have to close their doors.”

There are, however, some smaller manufacturers that have already begun to develop ergonomics programs. “We have taken a proactive approach to reduce repetitive motions in ink production,” said Dave Frederick, general manager, Deco-Chem, Inc. “We have taught our employees to manufacture UV flexographic inks in the safest and most efficient ways. Because of our safety program, there have been very few reports of injuries. We do not believe we will be affected by these new OSHA standards.”

Looking Ahead
The jury is still out on what will happen next. Some feel that there is no way that the OSHA ergonomics standard will be adopted as it is written now, especially since the Senate voted in June to block OSHA from imposing workplace standards to protect people from ergonomics injuries. Ms. Lechner, though, said she expects President Clinton to approve the OSHA standard, and see it implemented some time between November and January. “Once it is implemented, we expect there to be a legal challenge from the business community,” added Ms. Lechner.

In the meanwhile, companies such as INX have begun to implement parts of the standard into current policies. “Fortunately INX is way ahead of the power curve for complying,” said Mr. Reniker. “Most of the program elements and features are already incorporated in our standard operating procedures. The most difficult task will be determining how much we have to do to comply with the standard. Some of the requirements are so vague that it will leave everyone uncertain of compliance, which presumably will be determined by OSHA enforcement personnel. This problem will be further compounded by limited communication between OSHA’s main office and field offices, and inconsistent enforcement from inspector to inspector, area to area.”