An Overview of the Hazard & How OSHA Regulates It

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: January 3rd, 2012
Topics: Ergonomics |

Ergonomics wasn’t a generally recognized occupational health and safety hazard when the OSHA laws were first written. So there’s no OSHA standard on ergonomics. The Clinton Administration attempted to publish an OSHA ergonomics standard in the final days of its tenure; but Congress and the George W. Bush Administration felt the standard was too cumbersome to industry and pulled it back.

However, OSHA and state agencies are still regulating ergonomics through the back door. Here’s an overview of what ergonomics is all about and how it’s regulated in the U.S.

The Science of Ergonomics

The word ergonomics comes from 2 Greek words: ergo meaning “work,” and nomoi, meaning “the laws of”. So, ergonomics is the study of the laws of work, focusing on specific movements and activities required in order to perform a task.  The ultimate goal in the application of ergonomic principles in the workplace is to make the necessary adjustment so that the work task fits the worker, not the other way around.

Ergonomics often references the worker/task equation in which goal is to assure that the balance between what the worker brings to the job is equal to what the work task requires of the worker. Whenever a worker has to modify or adjust themselves to perform a work task, the “mis”fit causes stress and strain on the body.  For example, if a work table is too low, the worker has to hunch over in order to perform the task, causing stress on their neck and shoulders or if a worker has to kneel on the ground to install carpet, the pressure on their knees causes discomfort and pain.

If the task needs to be performed occasionally, it doesn’t typically cause a significant problem.  But the strain of performing the task repetitively during one work shift or over a period of days weeks, months and sometimes years can cause injuries or illnesses to a worker’s body. The affect is usually felt in the joints such as knees, shoulders, wrists, and neck and affects the body’s muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints or spinal disks.  It is important to stress that the injuries and illnesses that result from an unbalanced worker/task equation are not acute, like a broken ankle or a laceration.  The injuries and illness are chronic and take a long time to develop.

How Ergonomics Affect Worker Health and Safety

There’s no real consensus on what we call the injuries and illnesses that result from ergonomics problems. Terms that are most often used include musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), cumulative trauma disorders (CTD), or repetitive stress injuries (RSI). You might be more familiar with some of the more common diagnoses which include:

  • Muscle strains and tears;
  • Ligament sprains;
  • Joint or tendon inflammation;
  • Pinched nerves;
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome;
  • Trigger finger/Loggers White Finger;
  • Tendinitis;
  • Herniated spinal disk;
  • Tension neck syndrome;
  • Rotator cuff syndrome;
  • Sciatica;
  • Raynaud’s Phenomenon;
  • Low back pain;
  • Carpet layer’s knee; and
  • Hand-arm vibration syndrome.

Why Ergonomic Hazards Are Hard to Control

What makes ergonomic issues tricky to manage in the workplace is that the symptoms often begin as minor ones, causing discomfort, stiffness or aches, but rarely serious pain in the early stages. Therefore, many workers attribute them to the nature of the job or perhaps simply getting older.

What’s even more problematic is that the symptoms often disappear once a worker rests his/her body, as might happen when they go home at the end of their work shift.  However, if the worker continues to perform the task in subsequent shifts that created the symptoms, their body’s ability to recover decreases slowly but surely over time, and eventually they end up with a more serious condition. Had it been caught early and treated with simple ergonomics corrections, the eventual results might have been minor and resolved with limited restrictions on duty or time off. But when left untreated, as so often happens, the eventual diagnosis is much more severe and the treatment more complicated, often involving time off work and/or surgery.

As discussed below, assessing your workplace includes making sure you find a way to make sure your workers  notify you whenever they experience any of the symptoms below so that they can be evaluated as possible ergonomics problems:

  • Painful joints;
  • Pain, tingling, numbness in hands or feet;
  • Shooting or stabbing pains in the arms or legs;
  • Swelling or inflammation;
  • Burning sensation;
  • Pain in the wrists, shoulders, forearms or knees;
  • Fingers or toes turning white;
  • Back or neck pain; and
  • Stiffness.

OSHA Regulation of Ergonomics—or Lack Thereof

For many workplace safety hazards, OSHA has developed mandatory Standards that define the minimum requirements for employers relating to finding, evaluating and correcting hazards.  In 2000, after many years of study and development, the Clinton OSHA published a Standard on ergonomics. The Standard was controversial and many employers took issue with the method OSHA took to require employers to find and correct ergonomics problems in their workplaces. There was also enough disagreement with the Standard for its detractors to generate enough support to push a Joint Resolution of Congress calling for the rescinding of the Standard. Following signature of the resolution by President George W. Bush in January of 2000, the Standard was vacated just days before it was to take effect and OSHA was banned from introducing another similar ergonomic standard in the future.

But just because OSHA doesn’t have any regulations specifically addressing ergonomics, employers still have an obligation to protect their workers under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause, Sec. 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which states that employers have a duty to provide a workplace free from recognized serious hazards and that includes ergonomic hazards. OSHA has cited employers numerous times since 2000 for ergonomic hazards under the General Duty Clause as part of its overall enforcement program.

OSHA Enforcement

If you think your company might be ripe for OSHA enforcement action for existing ergonomics problems, OSHA will consider the evidence in the particular case, as well as other relevant factors. The basic criteria OSHA uses to decide whether to cite are:

  • Whether an ergonomic hazard exists;
  • Whether that hazard is recognized;
  • Whether the hazard is causing, or is likely to cause, serious physical harm to employees; and
  • Whether a feasible means exists to reduce the hazard.

All of the above factors are the same for ergonomics as they are for any other workplace hazard. OSHA says that is will not focus enforcement actions when they find an employer who is making a good faith effort to fix ergonomic hazards and correct them. But, OSHA has issued citations to organizations that have indicated their willingness to lower their ergonomic risks in writing but have failed to effectively implement their commitment.

State Regulation of OSHA

Of course, OSHA isn’t the final word on work safety—especially in states like California, Oregon, Washington and Michigan that have their own equivalent state OSHA program.

Even so, only one state currently has its own ergonomic standard: California. Washington State’s program was repealed in 2003. Alaska considered developing a program but decided against it. Minnesota created a Task Force to make recommendations, but no regulations have been implemented to this date. Oregon addresses ergonomic problems through outreach and voluntary services.

Click here to find some additional information on OSHA and how they view an employer’s responsibility to mitigate ergonomics hazards:

Click here to find information on California’s regulations:

Click here to find information on those State Plan States that have addressed ergonomics either by education or guidelines.:

Click here to go the main OSHA webpage on Ergonomics: