New Ergonomics Law Promises Pain

Most businesses face lots of work and expense to set up new programs.

Whos afraid of a federal ergonomics standard? Not Ken Ayers; hes dealt with such impending government regulations before.

When Ayers, director of loss control and regulatory compliance in the risk services department of Catholic Healthcare West, in San Francisco, helped his employer develop an ergonomics program in 1998, it was partly in response to an ergonomics standard approved by California. Since then, hes been watching the development of the federal standard to ensure that his hospital system can comply with a minimum of pain.

The new federal standard was approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration last month. About 60 million, more than half, of employees covered by the standard work for employers who have yet to address ergonomics, OSHA estimates.

Employers must meet an Oct. 14, 2001, deadline for meeting provisions of the standard, which applies to about 102 million workers nationwide. Over the next 10 years, OSHA estimates that employers will need to address 18 million jobs in an attempt to cut musculoskeletal injuries in half, at a cost of $4.5 billion per year. However, industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is challenging the standard in court, claim that it will cost companies as much as $90 billion per year to comply with the new standard.

With an ergonomics program and injury-reporting process already in place, Catholic Healthcare West can focus on tweaking its compliance capabilities. Most employers, though, will be rushing to organize an ergonomics effort in time for the deadline, when they must begin informing employees about the standard and educating them on disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and back injuries that improper ergonomics can cause.

"Everybody has got to start to get ready for this," said Lane Dennard, a partner specializing in labor and employment law at law firm King & Spalding, in Atlanta. "For people without any ergonomics program, there are going to be pretty significant changes in how theyre doing things."

One challenge could be in deciding who should take charge of ergonomics issues. For most large organizations, the responsibility could fall to already established safety departments. That was the case at Catholic Healthcare West, where the risk services department handles health and safety and oversees the ergonomics program.

Few employers put IT departments in charge of ergonomics programs. At Pitney Bowes Inc., in Stamford, Conn., for instance, the corporate safety and health department leads the ergonomics team. IT must follow ergonomics guidelines in the equipment it buys, said Peter Lewis, senior corporate safety engineer at the company.

IT departments can and should play a more proactive role. IT personnel, after all, review and set up the computers that are among the main causes of repetitive-stress disorders, said Mark Lawrence, a certified professional ergonomist in Santa Cruz, Calif. IT departments can offer expertise on hardware and the effects of intensive computer use to an ergonomics team. "These are the folks setting things up, and they know where the users are," Lawrence said.

While certain departments may need to take charge, they shouldnt approach ergonomics alone, Lawrence said. An enterprise should create a companywide team of four to 10 people. The standard requires input from workers, who should be represented on the team. "Ergonomics is collaborative," he said. "Its not a program as much as its a process."

Addressing ergonomics issues isnt easy, even for organizations that have begun to get organized. Ayers, at Catholic Healthcare West, said that despite the systems having a program for two years, some of its 48 hospitals have become lax after the initial training and awareness outreach. With the federal standard going into effect soon, he and his team plan to make sure each hospital has an ergonomics awareness leader. That way, Catholic Healthcare West can continue to prevent its workers from becoming its next patients.