From the fast-food chain that got a 20 percent productivity boost to the appliance manufacturer who cut workers' compensation costs 80 percent, the examples are numerous and the message is clear: Paying attention to workplace ergonomics makes sense even if OSHA never institutes its new standards.
"It's just good business," says Rachel Michael, an ergonomist with ErgoWeb Inc., a Midway, Utah, ergonomics software and consulting company. "You will see improvements in injury rates, [workers'] compensation costs and insurance premiums, and you'll reduce costs for hiring temporary workers to replace injured people. There are also studies that show it's great for worker retention."
Easing the Pain
In the wake of the repeal of OSHA's proposed new ergonomics rules, entrepreneurs everywhere are relieved. The new standards, the most sweeping and among the most controversial in OSHA's 30-year history, would have applied to nearly every business. Collectively conforming to the new rule would have cost entrepreneurs anywhere from the few billion dollars a year OSHA estimates to the many tens of billions of dollars a year predicted by foes of the measure.
But OSHA's setback isn't necessarily a setback for ergonomics. The furor over the proposal has focused millions of entrepreneurs' attention on the potential for reducing risk factors for musculoskeletal injury. What they're finding, says Michael, are lots of ways to make their companies better, safer and more profitable places to work.
The first step is to pick someone in your company to research the topic and come up with some recommendations. Tips could come from trade associations, OSHA or other companies.
Next, you should educate your employees about musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Tell them about the telltale signs of an MSD, such as numbness or tingling produced as a result of work-related activities. Also educate them about the risk factors, such as working in an awkward position. Warn them about processes that require repeating the same action every few seconds all day long, and warn them against using a computer keyboard or mouse for more than four hours per day.
Reducing MSD risks can be surprisingly inexpensive. Foes of the OSHA rule estimate the average job would require $2,000 in ergonomic equipment, such as chairs and desks and costs for redesigning work processes. But it doesn't have to be that expensive, says Michael. Instead of buying new furniture to replace desks that are too low, you could stack a few boards under the legs. Instead of buying footrests to improve computer users' posture and comfort, you could use boxes.
And ergonomics is something you will likely have to address someday, if you like it or not. "Is some type of ergonomic regulation inevitable?" asks Gregory R. Watchman, an employment attorney specializing in OSHA issues at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in Washington, DC. "The new administration will feel pressure to take some action on this issue. That action might be a narrower standard, or it might be voluntary guidelines or some other initiative. But there is a problem that needs to be addressed."
Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer who specializes in business topics.