Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Civil War Brews over Ergonomics: OSHA vs. Anti-Ergo Industry

OSHA has been forced to face some SHOCKING truths lately. First, musculoskeletal injuries really do exist and implementing ergonomics fixes really does help. Second, just because a company (even a big, respected company) has a good program on paper, doesn’t mean it translates down to where people are actually working.

But the business associations, especially the National Coalition on Ergonomics, spawn of the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce, are having none of it. To ward off potentially precident-setting (for Republicans) ergonomics citations, NAM and NCE are considering forming a legal defense fund and taking legal action against OSHA, according our underground investigative reporter who knows all (one of my many valuable correspondents who, for reasons of homeland security, are forced to remain anonymous.)

And that’s OSHA’s third unpleasant revelation. Your friends may not remain your friends if you don’t join them in fantasyland.

The first reason the business associations are upset is because OSHA had the temerity to level a general duty clause ergonomics citation against a Coca-Cola bottling facility in Ohio.

OSHA also cited a Missouri SUPERVALU warehouse for ergonomics problems.
The evaluation of this manual lifting task indicates that employees are exposed to hazards that are causing or likely to cause MSDs, including low back pain (LBP) and shoulder related MSDs, as shown by a review of the company's injury and illness records from 1998 to the time of the inspection, which document that a significant number of MSDs have been caused by exposure to stressors; including 6 shoulder surgeries in 2001 and 2 shoulder surgeries in 2002.
Seems like it's hard to argue with shoulder surgeries. So what has the industry's undies in such a twist? A couple of things.

First, the Coca Cola citation involves truckers and the trucking and delivery industry (American Trucking Association and U.P.S., for example) were among the most rabid foes of the Clinton ergonomics standard. It's one thing if OSHA cites a couple of wimpy nursing homes, but it's quite another when they go after the big boys.

Industry mouthpieces point out that both Coca Cola and SUPERVALU have extensive ergonomics programs in place and note that OSHA Administrator John Henshaw had stated many times, including a recent speech to the American Occupational Health Conference that
We are not going to focus our enforcement efforts on employers who have implemented effective ergonomic programs or who are making good-faith efforts to reduce ergonomic hazards.
Clearly his industry buddies assumed they had a blank check. As long as companies had something decent on paper, reality (as in shoulder surgeries and other injuries) didn't count in individual facilities that may not be taking ergonomics problems as seriously as they need to.

Apparently that kind of enforcement strategy didn't pass the laugh test even in George Bush's OSHA.

Oh please don't give me a ticket, officer. Even if I was going 120 in a school zone, my parents have immaculate driving records and I got an "A" in drivers ed.

(And particularly embarrassing for OSHA and SUPERVALU, SUPERVALU’s Corporate Director of Risk Control James Koskan is a member of OSHA’s National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics.)

In response to this outrageous (and unusual) display of enforcing the law, the National Coalition on Ergonomics is considering forming a legal defense fund, presumably to aid in the defense of other mom and pop type businesses like Coke and SUPERVALU from violations of their purity by OSHA's gestapo agents....Even if they're Republican gestapo agents.

Don't you just hate it when the children fight?

Footnote: Coca Cola, incidentally, is no virgin when it comes to OSHA citations. The Atlanta Business Journal revealed that
Last year The Coca-Cola Co. and its network of bottlers were cited for 222 violations of federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration standards and fined $156,831.

In 2001, OSHA cited Coke (NYSE: KO) and its bottlers for 212 violations and fined them a total of $170,091.

Over the past decade, the companies have been cited for 2,264 violations.

A list released by OSHA in February that identifies 14,200 U.S. facilities that had accident and illness rates at twice the national average of about three illnesses or injuries for every 100 workers included 96 facilities owned by Coke bottlers.