Ergonomics: Definitions and Standards Remain Open to Debate

No safety issue has ever generated more controversy than ergonomics. The list of activists on both sides seems without end. The same is true of the actions taken by these parties. There have been and/or are federal and state government standards, guidelines, lawsuits, consensus standards and appeals.

To offer a review of risk factors (i.e. force repetition and posture), as well as remedial measures without understanding the complexity of the issue would be unfair. In the interest of sanity, this article will focus on the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) activities and offer a cursory review of the efforts by private industry to develop an American National Standard Institute (ANSI) consensus standard. The only challenges addressed will be those presented by the National Coalition on Ergonomics (NCE). NCE is a coalition of more than 250 trade associations, medical professionals, and individual businesses representing industries in almost every sector. Members include the American Bakers Association, American Iron & Steel Institute, American Trucking Associations, Center for Office Technology, Food Distributors International, Food Marketing Institute, Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association, National Association of Manufacturers, National Association of Wholesalers-Distributors, National Restaurant Association, National Soft Drink Association and many other groups.

Under normal circumstances it might be a good idea to begin with simple definitions of the topic and any key terms associated with it. However, even the definitions have become a point of debate. The only complete definition I have come across for ergonomics comes from the proposed ANSI standard. “Ergonomics is a multidisciplinary science that studies human physical and psychological capabilities and limitations.” The definition, which presents the real difficulty, is the word used to identify ergonomics related injuries, the musculoskeletal disorders (MSD).

The best scientific definition for this term comes from the National Academy of Science. Musculoskeletal disorders are “an alteration in an individual’s usual sense of wellness or ability to function,” which “may or may not be associated with well-recognized anatomic, physiologic, or psychiatric pathology.” The proposed ANSI standard offers two definitions. First there are musculoskeletal disorders (MSD): “A disturbance of regular or normal function of muscle, tendon, tendon sheath, nerve, bursa, blood vessel, bone, joint or ligament resulting in altered structure or impaired motor or sensory function.” Next we have the work-related musculoskeletal disorders “that may be caused, aggravated, or precipitated by intense, repeated or sustained work activities with insufficient recovery.”

Due to the number of opinions on definitions, OSHA views musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) as a “term of art in scientific literature that refers collectively to a group of injuries and illnesses.” They plan to work with stakeholders and develop narrower definitions to apply to specific workplace hazards. For lack of better direction, this provides a “wait and see” to follow for the balance of the article. The absence of a specific OSHA definition for musculoskeletal disorders is strange, considering the administration’s first ergonomist was hired 24 years ago, in 1979. OSHA finalized a standard on ergonomics in 2000. OSHA’s regression can only be accounted for by the action taken by Congress in 2001. Congress passed Senate Joint Resolution 6, which rescinded the OSHA’s original ergonomics rule. This action prohibits OSHA from issuing a rule that is substantially similar.

In lieu of a standard, OSHA’s Comprehensive Plan on Ergonomics was announced on April 5, 2002. The plan established a four-pronged approach to reducing musculoskeletal injuries.

First are the guidelines. Based on incident rates, OSHA plans to target specific industries. A protocol is in place for developing the guidelines and a draft has been completed of the first set of industry guidelines, which targets nursing homes. Other industries will be targeted or are encouraged to develop their own guidelines. Both the protocol and Nursing Home guidelines have been called into question. The NCE has pointed out that the industry did not have an opportunity to comment on the protocol. The NCE urged OSHA to insure the development of guidelines limiting the scope to high priority tasks and to take care in including tasks that were performed across multiple industries.

These concerns were well founded when one reviews the nursing home guidelines and related NCE comments. NCE pointed out that the guidelines were not restricted to the high priority tasks of resident handling. Areas identified in nursing homes as potential ergonomic problems will make even an electrical contractor stand up and take notice. For example, they include the use of hand tools and activities where an individual is required to stand for a period of two hours or more a day.

The NCE noted further that the guidelines, in effect, contain the same principles of the original rule that Congress disapproved of. Basically, the guidelines are not based on validated scientific data and fail to relate risk factors with proven remedial measures.

Regardless of whether OSHA accounts for dissenting comments, finalizes the draft “as is” or uses private industry guidelines, its second prong of the plan, enforcement, has and will be implemented. Using the General Duty Clause, which states that employers “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards,” citations are issued. The following are needed for a general duty citation: 1) the employer failed to keep his workplace free of a “hazard”; 2) the hazard was “recognized” either by the cited employer individually or by the employer’s industry generally; 3) the recognized hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and 4) there was a feasible means available that would eliminate or materially reduce the hazard. Guidelines certainly help OSHA prove recognition and feasibility of abatement, but are not needed.

The third element of OSHA’s plan is outreach and assistance. OSHA plans to provide advice and training to business. A series of compliance tools will be developed. Currently OSHA has several e-tools and downloadable materials on its Web site ( In fiscal year 2002, OSHA offered grants for nonprofit groups to develop support materials and training to help employers and employees better understand musculoskeletal disorders, the risks, and prevention strategies. The same can be expected this year.

The final element is research. OSHA recognizes that there are gaps in the information provided by the National Academy of Sciences. Working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), OSHA will encourage research in these areas. A National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics has been established. The members include two professors of medicine, an attorney, consultants specializing in occupational health, management directors, a professor of industrial engineering, safety and health specialists, a construction firm CEO, an associate professor in public health, and a registered nurse with joint faculty appointments in colleges of nursing and public health.

The job of the advisory committee is to help OSHA identify how to put the science of ergonomics into practice. OSHA is looking for ideas that can be used by lay people in industry, such as front-line supervisors or small business owners. OSHA is also looking for industries that need to be targeted and recommendations on areas of research.

An interesting sideline to OSHA’s plan is the development of an ANSI standard referred to earlier in the article. OSHA often uses consensus standards as part of its own standards or as a reference in establishing rationale for citations. A committee chaired by the secretariat of the National Safety Council has drafted an Ergonomics Standard Z365. At the time of this writing the standard had not been finalized. It was also under appeal by members of the National Coalition on Ergonomics. The standard proposed basic employer responsibilities; training; employee involvement; work surveillance; evaluation and management of work-related musculoskeletal disorders; job analysis; and job design and intervention. NCE challenged the standard based on he methodology used to form the committee and targeted many of the same concerns that were its objections to the OSHA standard.

With all the rhetoric offered, an electrical contractor has to wonder where it all fits. Reading between the lines, it’s clear OSHA will go forward. More importantly, OSHA will get around to the construction trades. Prior to the rescission of the ergonomics rule OSHA’s Advisory Committee for Construction Safety and Health had developed a Best Practices Guide on Ergonomics. When the rule went, so did the guide. With the new plan, OSHA took great effort to ensure construction was represented on the new National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics. One can expect ergonomic guidelines and/or a rule for the construction industry in the future.

In the meantime, how this issue affects the electrical construction trade is similar to other industries.

OSHA will issue citations for musculoskeletal hazards based on complaints, referrals and targeted inspections. Remember the criteria for General duty citations. Contractors must review all jobs and determine whether the hazard exists. Take whatever action is needed to prevent potential injuries. Consult the OSHA Web site for support materials and guidance on measures OSHA expects employers to take. EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a producer of safety manuals with training videos and software for contractors. Based in Alexandria, Va., he can be reached at 703.628.4326, or by e-mail at


About the Author

Joe O'Connor

Freelance Writer
Joe O'Connor is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@inte...

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