OSHSB Releases New Draft Ergonomics Standard

Formally continuing its work to meet its mandate to adopt an ergonomics standard, the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (OSHSB) released a new draft standard for public comment.

Two public hearings were set for January, one in Los Angeles and the other in Sacramento. Normally, the board conducts only one public hearing to receive comments on a proposed standard. Because the board anticipates extensive oral comments and interest in this draft standard, OSHSB has departed from its normal procedure and is holding two.

This draft is the board's second effort to adopt an ergonomics standard that addresses repetitive motion injuries. It proposes to add Section 5110, "Ergonomics," to the General Industry Safety Orders, and the new section would become part of the California Code of Regulations if adopted by the seven-member board.

The proposed section would apply to "a job, process, operation, or similar work activity at the workplace where repetitive motion injuries occur." The draft standard defines "repetitive motion injuries" as injuries resulting from workplace activities that "have been the predominant cause of a diagnosed, objectively-identified, musculoskeletal injury to more than one employee within the last 12 months."

Thus, for an employer to be subject to the ergonomics standard and required to establish an ergonomics program, at least two cases of repetitive motion injuries at the workplace in the past year would be required.

If subject to the ergonomics program, an employer must conduct a worksite evaluation, train employees, and implement a plan to control ergonomic hazards. If a hazard cannot be corrected, then "the employer shall consider engineering controls such as workstation redesign, adjustable fixtures or tool redesign, and administrative controls such as job rotation, work pacing, or work breaks."

Training would consist of information on the employer's ergonomics program, hazards that cause repetitive motion injuries, symptoms and injuries caused by repetitive motion, the importance of reporting symptoms and injuries to the employer, and methods used by the employer to minimize repetitive motion injuries.

Measures taken by the employer to minimize repetitive motion injuries will be considered to have satisfied the employer's obligations, "unless it is shown that a measure known to but not taken by the employer is substantially certain to cause a greater reduction in such injuries, and that this alternative measure would not impose additional unreasonable costs."

The proposed standard provides a non-mandatory worksheet checklist to assist employers with video display terminals in complying with the ergonomics regulations. This worksheet would give employers with video display terminals, who are subject to the ergonomics standard as a result of injuries, the options of implementing their own ergonomics program or following the program in the appendix.

The current draft standard focuses on correcting demonstrated hazards. Data compiled by DIR's Division of Labor Statistics and Research in 1993 found 28,000 employer reports of disorders associated with repetitive trauma. Assuming that all of these disorders resulted from repetitive motion injuries and that these reports were distributed evenly among employers, at most there would have been 14,000 workplaces subject to the proposed standard in 1993.

The present proposal is much narrower in scope than the proposed ergonomics standard considered by OSHSB in 1994. In its initial form, the earlier version would have required employers to implement an ergonomics program even if only symptoms of repetitive motion injuries were reported.

In a 6-0 vote, the board refused to adopt the earlier proposed standard in November 1994. Commenting on the vote, OSHSB Chair Jere W. Ingram said, "The loudest single message that has emerged from 6,000 comments, which the board reviewed, is that there is virtually no agreement among the affected groups on a means to effectively regulate the prevention of cumulative trauma disorder. It was also felt that the proposed standard was overly broad and would have imposed a costly regulatory burden on a vast number of employers where the occurrence of cumulative trauma disorders has not been identified."

The 1994 draft standard sparked an unprecedented number of public comments. Employers criticized the proposal as too stringent, while organized labor attacked it as too weak. OSHSB received no written comments supporting the proposal rejected by the board.

The board has been working to adopt an ergonomics standard by mandate of the Legislature: Labor Code Section 6357, enacted in July 1993, required OSHSB to adopt an ergonomics standard by January 1, 1995.

After the January 1995 deadline passed, the board continued working to develop an ergonomics standard, and conducted hearings last spring in Sacramento and San Diego to solicit public input. However, as a result of a lawsuit against OSHSB, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge James Ford issued a Writ of Mandate in May requiring the board to adopt an ergonomics standard by December 31, 1996- allowing 18 months from the time of his order. The plaintiffs had sought only a six-month deadline, while the board requested a period of two years.

The task of crafting an ergonomics standard has been delayed by a lack of consensus on repetitive motion injuries. While general agreement exists that such disorders pose a risk for employees, there is no agreement on the scope of the proposed mandates and the most effective means to address the problem.

In addition to the disagreement evident during OSHSB's first effort to adopt an ergonomics standard, a Cal/OSHA video display terminal advisory committee convened in the 1980s and a Cal/OSHA ergonomics advisory committee formed in the 1990s could not reach a consensus.

Activity in the Legislature, however, could eliminate the mandate to pass a standard. Assembly Bill 50 (Pringle) would delete Labor Code Section 6357 -and thus the mandate that OSHSB adopt an ergonomics standard. The bill cleared the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee and the Assembly Appropriations Committee last summer, but was not brought for a vote on the Assembly floor prior to adjournment. The bill could be brought for a floor vote at any time when the Legislature reconvenes.

Last spring, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) informally circulated a draft ergonomics standard. However, federal OSHA encountered resistance from Congress to such a national standard. The special assistant to the OSHA assistant secretary of labor who worked on the national ergonomics standard has left the agency. No further action on the subject has been taken by federal OSHA.