Ergonomics debate rages as U.S. passes new law

Psychosocial factors contribute to work-related injuries: study

A fierce debate over ergonomics is raging in the United States after the government passed tough new mandatory rules for employers.

The regulation, penned by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an administrative agency of the government, takes effect January 16, with employers expected to be in full compliance by the end of October. OSHA expects the regulation to prevent about 460,000 workers from injury each year and expects that the regulation will have the effect of saving US$9-billion a year in medical expenses and related workers’ compensation claims.

The rules force employers to redesign workstations, change equipment and tools used in production if employees are found to have suffered a work-related injury.

Business organizations, headed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), have banded together to stop the regulation from taking effect, including requesting the courts to grant an injunction and a request for a judicial review by a circuit court in Washington D.C.

The regulation has infuriated business organizations who charge the low threshold placed on employers — one recorded musculoskeletal disorder (or soft-tissue injury) before they have to implement a full-blown ergonomics policy — is burdensome and is ultimately going to force business out of the country.

The trigger mechanism works like this: if a worker reports symptoms of a musculoskeletal disorder, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain or tendinitis, the employer must determine if that injury was related to work. If the injury is related to the employee’s work, that employee is entitled to time off with pay. The employer must then investigate the workplace and determine if that job poses risks to other employees. If that is the case, they must implement practices in line with the new regulations.

“This regulation goes above and beyond our existing labour laws. It is more generous,” said Sarah Pierce, legislative representative for SHRM. According to SHRM, implementing an ergonomics-compliant workplace could cost anywhere from $800 to $1500 per employee.

Pierce said the new ergonomics regulation could have an adverse effect on employers who have voluntarily implemented an ergonomics policy. She said the regulations would mean that these employers would have to restructure their policies and spend thousands of dollars in order to make existing systems compliant with the law. “It is really unfortunate because there are some employers who go out of their way to make their workplaces safer and it’s working, but they’ll have to go out and do it all over,” said Pierce.

Efforts to introduce similar legislative measures are virtually non-existent in Canada nor do they seem likely to be put on the political agenda for some time.

The issue of regulating ergonomics was brought before two Canadian multi-stakeholder groups and while most of the participants said there should be more of an effort made in improving ergonomics in Canadian workplaces, the reaction was mixed when it came to suggesting such efforts be made mandatory.

“Certainly that was one area where there was differences but in general, people thought ‘yes, we should be looking at making improvements in the workplace,’” said Donald Cole, senior scientist in workplace studies at Canada’s Institute For Work and Health (IWH), who held both forums, one in 1998 and the other in 1999. In British Columbia, similar regulations as those passed in the U.S. were included as voluntary labour regulations but act more as guidelines for employers rather than being prescriptive.

“The threat of regulations isn’t imminent in Canada as it is in the U.S. The debate over ergonomics in Canada is not as polarized,” concurred Cole’s colleague Michael Kerr, a scientist with IWH.

Regardless of jurisdiction, ergonomics has reached the forefront as a major occupational health issue.

And current IWH research suggests there is more involved in work-related injuries than just the physical aspects of work.

“The main finding in our study was that both things, the physical and psychosocial, seemed to contribute to the onset of lower back pain,” said Kerr, in describing the results of a study of employees at the General Motors of Canada auto plant in Oshawa, Ont.

Kerr and a team of researchers looked at the work-related demands contributing to lower-back injuries — the most common and most costly occupational health injury — in these autoworkers and found that in addition to physical demands of their work, including the lifting and stretching, other psychosocial factors contributed to lower-back pain. Some of these factors included perceived control over their work, education levels and the overall climate of the working environment. The study also found that workers who thought their jobs were more physically demanding and who were more “negative” about the general work environment were at increased risk of lower-back pain. Education and job assignment was another contributing factor in the GM study.

“People who felt their education was mismatched for their job where at greater risk of lower-back injury,” said Kerr.

While technology has re-engineered work to the point were most “heavy” physical demands have been eliminated, said Kerr, “it’s not clear if the overall demand on the body is any less.”

In fact, a push for greater productivity has meant that employees have less rest or “pause” time between tasks.

“The real problem may be the lack of pause time. Muscle activity is even greater now because there is less time for muscles to relax,” said Kerr.

According to Kerr, over the last five years there has been a steady decline of almost all musculoskeletal workers’ compensation claims in Canada, with a quarter of these claims relating to lower-back pain. This decline could be due in part to changes in labour legislation and workers’ compensation policies that discourage employees from filing claims or the fact that more employers are aware of the physical stresses on employees and are making workplaces more ergonomically correct.

The point of research and of ergonomics, said Kerr, is to make employers aware of the preventative steps that can be taken.

Kerr said HR should be doing a better job at ensuring employees are doing work that fits their skills and education. Having an effective joint health and safety committee is important and the members of the committee should have some training in ergonomics, said Kerr.

But, the fear is that with recent research suggesting employers will have to take the psychosocial factors into account, it will be more difficult to get employers on board, said Kerr. And, having support from senior management is vital.

“Ergonomics in North America has focused almost exclusively on the physical because it is conceivably easier to change things in the workplace that relate to physical tasks. It’s difficult to find employers to put the effort into these policies because it is no longer simply about raising or lowering a bench.”

Health and safety issues
According to Human Resources Development Canada, some of the current occupational health and safety issues affecting Canadian workplaces include:
•insufficient lighting;
•drug and alcohol abuse;
•indoor air quality; and

For more information about these issues visit

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