The chiropractic profession has watched with great interest the progress of the controversial Ergonomics Standard put forth by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Following an intense lobbying campaign that included assurances to lawmakers uneasy about voting against organized labor, which had lobbied for 10 years for strong regulations to reduce ergonomics injuries, the House and Senate voted to repeal the new OSHA standard. Following the Congressional vote, President George Bush signed the repeal into law.
However, this may not be the death knell for some type of ergonomics rule, since many members of Congress have indicated they would like OSHA to go back to the drawing board. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, a Bush appointee, has said she plans to pursue the issue of ergonomics protection in the workplace.
Government reports show there are an estimated 1 million workplace injuries each year, at a cost to the economy of at least $50 billion. OSHA’s proposed regulations had covered 102 million workers at 6.1 million worksites. OSHA’s proposal covering repetitive motion disorders was 26 pages long, with explanations, recommendations and economic assessments of more than 500 pages. The agency said the rules would prevent 460,000 injuries per year, and would mean average annual savings to business of $9.1 billion.
OSHA’s Ergonomics Standard was designed to prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in the workplace through prevention and engineering controls. There were two major facets to the final rule: First, employers would have been required to create a program that identifies ergonomics problems and would also be required to provide employees with input into developing and evaluating the program. Second, employers would be required by the standard to improve conditions in areas where an MSD is reported. If any employee suffered an MSD injury, an employer was given 90 days to develop a temporary solution, and two years to create a permanent one.
By rescinding the new set of ergonomics regulations, Congress has raised a question: Do the workers of the world need politicians and union leaders to write safety rules for them? And what does this change of events mean to chiropractors seeking to participate in the industrial and occupational health marketplace?
The Big Business
Approach To Ergonomics
Business groups vigorously opposed the regulations, saying that OSHA had seriously underestimated the cost of compliance and was imposing a one-size-fits-all solution to a multi-faceted problem. Chiropractors should be aware that business’ opposition to OSHA’s proposed ergonomics protection standard does not indicate that the business community is unconcerned about repetitive motion injuries.
Either out of concern for their workers or to reduce the costs of workers’ compensation claims (or for both reasons), many forward-thinking companies have initiated their own programs to combat the rise of repetitive motion injuries. Companies that haven’t already initiated these programs may be considering the idea or at least would be open to the concept. With the tight labor market, many companies are finding it even more important to try to keep their employees at work.
Many companies have looked at ergonomics and said, “This is good for our business.” These companies know they will benefit from a more productive, more satisfied worker if there’s less stress in the workplace. They know they will save money on workers’ compensation costs. And they almost invariably find they improve the quality of the products or services they are delivering.
In light of these acknowledgements by business of the bottom-line impact of delivering much-needed biomechanic and ergonomics solutions to the workplace, the field of occupational healthcare continues to represent a significant opportunity to the chiropractic profession.
The Future of OSHA
Given Congress’ rejection of the OSHA regulations, and big business’ general opposition to a mandatory Ergonomics Standard, what other methods might the Labor Department use to guard against repetitive stress injuries?
With an annual budget of about $300 million, OSHA is about one-20th the size of the Environmental Protection Agency. The federal government has six times more fish and game inspectors than workplace health and safety inspectors. This means that most protection on the job comes from state workers’ compensation rules and programs, and tort law.
Rather than spending more resources on an agency that does not have the resources to be truly effective, policymakers are signaling state officials that they will have to assume the burden of responsibility and use their own means to ensure worker safety. This means that along with the drive for increased productivity and profits on the part of businesses, chiropractors can count on increased support at the state level when seeking to deliver healthcare and ergonomics training to industry.
While the country’s ergonomics law may be down for the count in the federal arena, in the future, a modified partnership between OSHA and business appears to be an effective alternative. In 1993, the 200 companies in Maine with the highest number of injuries were offered the choice to either set up a worker safety program in tandem with OSHA or face increased monitoring by OSHA inspectors. Made an offer too good to refuse, most companies chose the worker safety program. After two years, employers were able to identify 14 times more hazards than could have been identified by OSHA inspectors, and six out of 10 Maine employers involved reported reduced injury and illness rates.
Another example of a state that is adopting this approach is Minnesota, which is providing protection for repetitive stress injuries through its workers’ compensation division. The Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Act includes free safety and health consultations for private-sector employees.
As a profession, chiropractic should recognize the significant role we are poised to play in solving the biomechanic and ergonomics challenges of the workplace, whether the impetus comes from the federal government, state workers’ compensation divisions, the bottom line of business — or a combination. Chiropractic and ergonomics are a natural match.
To gain more knowledge on ergonomics and industry, you can enroll in one of the many postgraduate education classes offered at chiropractic colleges across the country, or you can seek the assistance of an experienced consultant who specializes in the field of industrial healthcare.
Doctors of chiropractic are well-trained in the assessment and correction of body biomechanics, positioning and movement. There is no profession better suited than chiropractic to succeed in the field of workplace safety, and it is imperative that we act now and take the necessary steps that will assure participation in this important health-care marketplace.