Inventory Management and Warehouse Operations.


OSHA’s Ergonomics Program Standard  (No Longer in effect)

By Dave Piasecki

This is an archive of an article written on the OSHA Ergonomic standard in 2000 that was repealed soon after it went into effect in 2001. I expect this issue may eventually come up again, so I think this article still serves a purpose. It's also a good record of what was going on at the time and my comments on the standard. 

Here is my original article from 2000.

Effective January 16, 2001 OSHA’s Ergonomics Program Standard goes into effect.  The standard applies to “All General Industry” with the only exceptions being agricultural, construction, or maritime operations.  The scope of this standard is so broad that whether you’re flipping burgers, running a machine, delivering mail, assembling computers, loading trucks, mopping the floor, sitting in front of a computer, dealing blackjack, or helping patients into wheelchairs, your covered.  Herein lies the problem, designing a fair, comprehensive, enforceable and understandable standard that applies to “all general industry” is a task destined for failure.   Terms such as “reasonably likely”, “feasible”, and “materially reduce” are certainly subject to interpretation as will be health care professionals and management’s assessments as to whether a specific “sign” or “symptom” is actually a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) and is directly related to a specific job activity.

Large and small businesses will both be affected by this ruling although in slightly different ways.  Small businesses that generally don’t have the resources available to implement these types of programs will struggle to comply, while larger businesses will be penalized because of the size of their workforce.  Since required actions are based upon actual MSD occurrences rather than a ratio of occurrences to man-hours worked, operations that have many employees performing the same job are at higher risk.  In reality, I think any task performed enough times by enough employees will eventually end up with an MSD. 

I want to make it clear that I am not an OSHA-basher, in fact I was very impressed and am very supportive of the Powered Industrial Truck Training ruling that went into effect in 1999 (see my article on Lift Truck Safety).  I also would agree that there are work environments that have not given enough consideration towards ergonomics and employees are being injured in the process.  I do feel however, that the issue of ergonomics is being resolved for the most part without OSHA’s intervention.  The increasing cost of health care along with labor shortages have played and will continue to play a role in companies adopting their own ergonomics policies.  The growth of ergonomic related businesses over the past 10 years should be adequate evidence of the commitment from industry to address this issue.  Implementing a generic standard that puts an additional financial burden on companies that are already resolving this issue and leaving OSHA the difficult task of trying to enforce a confusing standard will likely result in an expensive ineffective program which has the potential for abuse from both sides.

 All that being said I’ll now cover the highlights of the OSHA standard.

  • First, the new hot term for 2001 will be “Musculoskeletal Disorder” (MSD) which is defined as injuries and disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal discs.  MSDs do not include injuries caused by slips, trips, falls, or other similar accidents.
  • As previously noted the standard applies to all general industry with the exception of agricultural, construction, or maritime operations.
  • The standard and the activities required by the standard are Job-based.  Which means only employees performing jobs whose activities would be consistent with activities that may cause MSDs are affected (this tends to include just about everyone).  More importantly, subsequent actions such as implementing the complete ergonomic program (more on that later) only apply to those employees performing jobs for which an MSD has been reported.
  • The six elements of a complete ergonomics program are listed below.  It is important to read the published OSHA standard for full details as I am giving a condensed version.
    1. Management Leadership and Employee Training.  This includes assigning and communicating responsibilities for setting up and managing the ergonomics program, providing resources and training, ensuring that you do not have any existing policies which would discourage participation in the program and periodic communications with employees about the program and their concerns.  Employees must be trained on common MSD hazards, signs and symptoms of MSDs, how to report MSDs, and a summary of the standard (OSHA provides this).
    2. Hazard Information and Reporting.  You must set up a way for employees to report MSD signs and symptoms and to get prompt responses, this requires identifying at least one person responsible for receiving and responding to these reports.  You must evaluate employee reports of MSD signs and symptoms to determine whether a covered MSD has occurred.  You must periodically provide information to employees that explain how to identify and report MSD signs and symptoms. 
    3. Job Hazard Analysis and Control.  After a covered MSD or “persistent MSD symptoms” are reported you must analyze the problem to identify the ergonomic risk factors that result in the MSD hazard.  You must eliminate the MSD hazards, reduce them to the extent feasible, or materially reduce them using the incremental abatement process in the standard.  This is where it gets really tricky, and again I will refer you to the OSHA documentation that has much more detail including specifics on risk factors and employee involvement (which is required).
    4. Training. In addition to the previously mentioned employee training, employees in jobs at which an MSD has been reported must also be trained on the specific hazard identified and measures they must follow to protect themselves from exposure, any measures taken to eliminate or reduce the hazard, the full ergonomics program and their role in it.  Employees must be trained/retrained when a problem is identified, when they are assigned to a job at which a problem has been identified, when new hazards are identified or when changes are made to the job that may increase their exposure to hazards, or at least every 3 years.
    5. MSD Management.  You must respond promptly to employees with covered MSDs to prevent their condition from getting worse, provide access to a health care professional, provide the health care professional with the information needed for conducting MSD management, obtain a written opinion from the health care professional and ensure that the employee is provided with it.  You must also provide employees with work restrictions and work restriction protection, which maintains 100% of earnings and benefits if employee is put on work restriction and 90% of earnings and 100% benefits if employee is taken off the job.  The work restriction protection last until the employee returns to regular work, a health care professional determines the employee can never return to the former job, or 90 calendar days have passed.
    6. Program Evaluation.  You must evaluate your ergonomics program periodically and at least every 3 years to ensure that it is in compliance with the standard.  This includes consulting with employees in problem jobs to assess their views on the effectiveness of the program and to identify any significant deficiencies in the program and evaluating the elements of the program to ensure they are functioning properly and to ensure it is eliminating or materially reducing MSD hazards.
  • The first two elements of the ergonomics program must be implemented for all jobs that are potentially at risk for MSDs (again this includes just about every job) even if no MSD has been reported.
  • The complete ergonomics program must be implemented for those jobs at which a covered MSD or “persistent MSD symptoms” have been reported.  There is an option here to implement a “Quick Fix” which eliminates the need to implement the complete ergonomics program.  A “Quick Fix” is a way to fix the problem quickly and completely.  In other words if you can quickly eliminate the hazard (within 90 days) all you need to do is to document the fix, check the job within 30 days to confirm the hazard has been eliminated, and provide hazard information to the employees.  If the “Quick Fix” does not eliminate the hazard or if another MSD occurs on the job within the next 36 months you will need to implement the complete ergonomics program.  The only exception to this is that if the second MSD results from a different physical work activity in the same job you may try a second “Quick Fix”.
  • Employers with 10 or more employees must maintain records relating to the ergonomics program including:  Employee Reports and Responses, Job Hazard Analysis, Hazard Control Records, Quick Fix Control Records, Ergonomics Program Evaluation, MSD Management Records. 
  • Employers must have the first two elements of the standard in place no later than Oct. 14, 2001

I’ll again mention the importance of employers reading the actual OSHA documentation that can be downloaded from their site OSHA Ergonomic Program Standard.  There is a lot more detail in the standard including requirements on health care professionals, details of risk factors and action triggers, requirements for employee involvement.  That’s right, OSHA is requiring employee input in specific areas. According to my understanding of the standard, if you implement a quick fix without input from the employees you are in violation (even if the fix works).  I certainly doubt OSHA would enforce this violation, however, it does give you some insight as to the extent of the standard.  I also wonder how this ruling will affect operations where heavy lifting is inherent to the job.  In the past, these operations would make it clear to applicants that frequent heavy lifting is involved and that you must be physically capable of meeting the heavy lifting requirements.  It was not uncommon for people to accept these jobs only to find that the lifting was too much for them, they would generally then just go look for another job.  It was understood that these jobs were not for everyone.  Under the new ruling it would seem that if an employee's level of physical fitness was less than that needed to perform the task that the responsibility now falls on the employer to make operational changes to eliminate the heavy lifting.  

The greatest potential for conflict with the standard will come in interpreting what "reducing MSD hazards to the extent feasible" is.  Obviously since any physical operation can be automated, the definition of feasible will become an economic issue.  And even implementing total automation does not completely resolve the issue since someone will likely need to monitor the automation, probably sitting in a control room at a computer, which is a work activity (according to OSHA) that has ergonomic risk factors.

According to OSHA,  any motion or lack of motion is potentially an ergonomic risk factor. 

Updates and Extras: 

April 5, 2002.  OSHA is working on Industry Specific and Task Specific Ergonomics guidelines.  The "New" OSHA Ergonomics Plan is a work in progress, I suggest periodically checking the OSHA Ergonomics Page for updates.

On March 6 & 7, 2001, the Senate and the House of Representatives voted to repeal OSHA's Ergonomics Ruling.    Good news for general industry, bad news for those in the compliance industry that probably have their warehouses full of compliance kits.  As stated in my article,  the OSHA standard was problematic and destined for failure.  Although the standard has been repealed it is very likely that we will be seeing some other version of the standard in the future.  Due to the debate over what an ergonomic related injury is, it will continue to be a challenge for OSHA to put together a standard that is fair to both workers and industry.  Hopefully the attention on this issue has convinced those companies that have not been giving adequate attention to ergonomic issues an incentive to address their operations thus eliminating the need for OSHA to act.  Well...maybe.

Extra:  For more information on ergonomics, there is a great publication available from the California Osha website called Easy Ergonomics.  This is not a simple pamphlet, it's 96 pages of detailed info including many photos and examples of specific improvements.  Download PDF file by clicking on the following link and then clicking on the Easy Ergonomics title.

Also try ErgoWeb for news, information, and products related to ergonomics.

Liberty Mutual has provided Manual Materials Handling Tables (online assessment tools and downloadable PDF)

Visit my safety links for more sites.

Go to Articles Page for more articles by Dave Piasecki.

Dave Piasecki, is owner/operator of Inventory Operations Consulting LLC, a consulting firm providing services related to inventory management, material handling, and warehouse operations. He has over 25 years experience in operations management and can be reached through his website (, where he maintains additional relevant information.

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