Thursday, April 14, 2005

Load 16 tons and what do you get? Surgery and a Lousy OSHA Settlement

Last week I wrote an article about the anti-ergonomics industry pissing in their pants about a settlement reached between OSHA and a Supervalu warehouse over a 2003 ergonomics citation.

"Oy," they said. "This agreement settlement implicitly recognizes ergonomics hazards, which cannot be backed by scientific evidence. No, no, no. Bad precedent."

Well now that the details of the settlement are out, it turns out the workers are the ones who should be upset by the agreement. According to the Bureau of National Affairs:

  • The penalty for the citation was reduced to from$6,300 to $1,000.

    $1,000? Supervalu is a Fortune 100 company with annual revenues of $20 billion!

    And who knows, if Supervalu doesn't get its act together this time, OSHA just might double -- or even triple -- their fine next time. Deal with it, Supervalu.

  • The ergonomics violation--cited under the general duty clause--would be rewritten to omit any specific references to weight lifted by employees or specific musculoskeletal disorders suffered by Supervalu workers.

    The original citation read:
    At the Supervalu warehouse facility, order selectors were required to lift weights up to 77 lbs or more (at an approximate average of 1714 pieces per day and a total weight of 37,025 pounds), and to twist, reach, bend, and lift when selecting pieces and loading them onto pallets.
    The "old" citation also mentioned that employees were suffering
    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.
    The new, improved citation will read:
    the employer did not furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards ... in that order selectors performed certain lifting tasks with stressors that had caused, were causing, or were likely to cause musculoskeletal disorders.
    I guess we wouldn't want the workers to actually be able to decide for themselves whether they are lifting too much or what injuries all that lifting might cause. They might actually start associating their shoulder and back injuries with lifting 37,000 pounds a day. Don't want to trouble their pretty little heads with details like that when there's work to be done.

  • Supervalue will institute a behavior-based safety management program.

    Hello? Behavior based safety program? Didn't we just read about that somewhere?

  • Oh yeah, here.

    Behavioral safety is where, instead of actually making the workplace safer, you just change workers' behavior by giving them awards for not reporting injuries, and punishing them for getting hurt. And the pressure is so great not to report injuries that the term "bloody pocket syndrome" has been coined because workers hide their injured hands in their pockets.

OK, so let me get this all straight.

    Instead of setting some kind of weight limit that workers are allowed to lift (or even letting workers know how much lifting might be dangerous and what injuries can develop), Supervalu's program -- sanctioned by OSHA -- will likely consist of punishing workers for suffering back or shoulder injuries (because if they get hurt, they clearly weren't lifting their 16 tons a day "properly") and rewarding those who are still standing at the end of a work week.

  • The citation will apply to only one of Supervalu's 1500 locations. This means that whatever improvements might be made at this site, all of the other locations will have to be addressed individually.

    Which is a problem, particularly in Washington State where the state OSHA is also investigating Supervalu for ergonomics problems and has been forced to subpoena records. Supervalu is fighting the subpoena based on the results of the 2003 Washington state Proposition 841 which repealed their ergonomics standard. I wrote last summer about the Building Industries Association of Washington (BIAW) having a hissy fit because Washington OSHA was intending to issue an enforcement directive, which according to the BIAW was "a blatant violation of the law and subversion of the will of the voters" who had passed Proposition 841.

    State OSHA officials responded that the referendum did not nullify the General Duty Clause under which OSHA was able -- before and after the Washington state ergonomics standard -- to cite employers for unsafe conditions (including ergonomics), even where there was no standard.
It's almost as if OSHA woke up and said "Oops, we really didn't mean it. Let's see how we can make this as insignificant as possible."

One more thing. You may be interested to know that James L. Koskan, Corporate Director of Risk Control for Supervalu, the company whose workers were lifting more than 16 tons a day, was a member of OSHA's National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics, one of OSHA's many excuses for doing virtually nothing about ergonomics injuries for the past four years since repealing the ergonomics standard.

Yup, takin' care of the ergonomics problem, one store and $1,000 at a time. No wonder Republicans in Congress are so pleased.

And the whining industry types? Their associations obviously miss the good old days when they could raise money hand-over-fist by warning that the sky would fall if American businesses had to address ergonomics hazards -- which are costing our economy $2.8 billion annually in health care and lost work hours.