When the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revealed its much anticipated ergonomics standard in late 2000, normally casual conversations between building service contractors were peppered with worried talk of the standard and what it would take to comply. Workplace safety experts also unleashed their criticism.

What both populations saw in the 1,600-page standard published in the Federal Register’s Nov. 14 issue were several potentially crippling loopholes. Contractors questioned what equipment and cleaning-technique changes they would need to make to comply with the standard’s vague “ergonomically safe workplaces” directive. Safety experts turned their attention to a confusing penalty process that seemed to immediately force employers to pay complete, or near-complete, wages for employees unable to work due to alleged, but not confirmed, workplace injuries.

Various groups across the country quickly filed lawsuits to stop OSHA from implementing the new regulation, hoping to change the most misunderstood portions of the standard. And while many people admitted that workplace safety was a good cause, they questioned whether this newest standard was the most appropriate way to enforce it.

Some contractors may choose to hold off any ergonomics planning until these lawsuits run their course, but responsible BSCs can’t rely on others’ actions to protect them from what many industries expect to be an inevitable rule, whether similar or not to the one currently contested. In fact, ergonomics experts say the standard will go into effect in January regardless of current court cases.

The problem? Contractors don’t know where to start first when addressing the ergonomics of their operations.

“While the ergonomics standard points to a ‘problem,’ it does not provide a specific solution, leaving businesses to try and guess what their obligations are,” says Bill Balek, legislative affairs director for the International Sanitary Supply Association, a participant in of one of the lawsuits attempting to halt OSHA’s new standard. “It allows OSHA the luxury of second-guessing an employer's choice by way of a citation for violation of the standard.”

“In general, people don’t feel comfortable with the standard,” adds Manuel Quezada, director of safety at Diversified Maintenance Systems, South Pasadena, Calif. “A consensus in this industry is the government is trying to establish more of a professionalism within industries…some sort of minimum standard that people can say they’ve been through, but people are waiting for the main approved standard to hit and then they’ll go from there.”

But while many companies may feel they lack the details — how many alterations and how much money, staff, tools and equipment it will take to comply — the wait-and-see defense won’t cut it once a standard is in place.

Understanding ergonomics
Safety experts say the best thing contractors can do is to start educating themselves as much as possible about ergonomics, so they are prepared if the standard moves forward later this year. The parts of the standard that most likely will remain intact after the lawsuits are the workplace analysis for potential ergonomic hotspots and the employee information and training procedures.

And there are plenty of available resources to help contractors better define the details in question now, rather than later.

Even though, under the current standard, workplace analysis isn’t triggered until a complaint is filed, BSCs “need to look at the different jobs janitors are doing, anything that requires bending and lifting, and assess the work involved,” says Sandy Hammers, safety trainer at Sparkling Klean in Omaha, Neb. She suggests supervisors tell workers not to twist their bodies while they work, and to help them understand they need less stress on their bodies.

Along those same lines, the key to a successful ergonomics program is organized, orderly and guided analysis, according to the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Prevention. The group offers it’s complete guide to researching and designing an ergonomics program at its web site.
To evaluate your current operation, the center recommends using both passive and active worksite surveillance.

Passive surveillance involves analyzing existing data such as routine injury reports, OSHA logs, medical and safety records, work force reports and employee suggestions. This will help contractors pinpoint the jobs that tend to have the highest injury rates. Once BSCs identify those job, they can review other positions in the company with similar duties that could lead to such injuries.

Active surveillance involves further investigation into suspected problem areas. The employees most affected by an ergonomically insufficient process often are the most valuable resources for solutions, according to many of the companies that testified during OSHA’s public hearings on the standard.

Also, contractors engaging in productivity analysis to find more efficient ways to do clean, already have asked a lot of the same questions but for a different reason. In fact, during the public hearings, many companies reported that attempts to analyze processes for better ergonomics often led to higher efficiency rates, according to OSHA officials. Contracting Profits columnist and industry consultant John Walker has taken this same position after performing numerous productivity tests for contract and in-house cleaning operations.

BSCs’ active surveillance may include on-site observance of cleaners and surveying workers about their cleaning techniques, use of tools and which activities tend to lead to added fatigue. Review any duties that include repetitive motion, awkward posture, prolonged periods of repetitive activity, forceful movement (gripping tools or applying pressure when using tools), exposure to excessive vibrations or loud noises, and lack of breaks to relieve workers of any of the above activities.

Specific cleaning tasks with ergonomics concerns include any where workers bend to get to hard-to-reach areas such as around toilets or urinals, under desks or on top of tall objects; any work that requires gripping a tool — such as a mop, brush or machine handle — for long periods of time or to apply pressure to remove dirt or stains; mopping, vacuuming or other floor-care tasks done continuously over a large area, during a long period of time.

That list sounds frustrating because it seems to include almost everything a cleaning worker does. But analyzing those tasks and attempting to make them less taxing meets a large portion of OSHA’s requirements.

Teaching workers how to properly bend when reaching tough spots; explaining how to properly hold tools, or finding tools with enlarged handles; reviewing the proper motions during dusting, vacuuming or mopping; and mixing up tasks or providing breaks to avoid prolonged repetition all are ways contractors can comply with OSHA’s vague-sounding requirements of “to a degree feasible” and “below hazard level.”

In addition, OSHA does acknowledge that some workplaces will never be hazard-free. OSHA officials advise BSCs that once they have done the necessary research and made attempts to ease the burden on workers, the only other element necessary is a program that can quickly address any problems as they arise with individual or specific groups of “at-risk” workers. Even if injuries continue to be reported, OSHA officials say the employer will have met requirements, because the standard intends to reduce and not completely eliminate workplace injury risks.

What to discuss
The aspect of OSHA’s standard which, as of press time still was scheduled to start in January is employee education. As a rule, a company should train its employees about reporting ergonomics problems every three years, says Roni Lueder, president of Humanics ErgoSystems Inc. in Encino, Calif.

OSHA offers a variety of materials contractors can use to explain ergonomics and related injuries to employee, especially a workplace poster that covers all relevant issues, says John Wiles, acting chief administrator for Nevada’s OSHA department.

Another helpful resource is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ Safe Jobs Now program, which defines ergonomics and related injuries. Visit the group’s Web site.

The three main injuries workers should know about are repetitive strain injuries, cumulative trauma disorders and musculoskeletal disorders. All three problems can involve injury to the hands, arms, shoulders, neck, back, lower limbs and various nerve groups.

When informing employees of these disorders, contractors should include descriptions of the risk factors — working conditions that could increase risk; the most common injuries; signs and symptoms of each injury; adjustments employees can make to alleviate stress in these areas; stretches and lifestyle changes that could reduce risk; early reporting procedures; and the steps the company will take once informed of a possible injury, as well as procedures to request an ergonomic evaluation of a job, duty or piece of equipment.

Despite these clarifications, some contractors still might wonder how to know if they’re truly complying with the new standard.

Unfortunately, there are no real measurable benchmarks, says Peter Budnick, chief ergonomist at ErgoWeb in Midway, Utah. But there are some existing standards that contractors can look to for better explanation. California and Washington states already have their own ergonomics standards. OSHA also has approved state-level job safety and health programs that address ergonomics in accordance with the intentions of the national standard. Twenty-eight states, as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, have such programs which contractors can review. A complete listing of these plans, with contact information is available here.

The state of Washington launched its own ergonomics standard last year; jobs with physical risk factors were defined as “caution zone jobs.” The standard requires the employer to provide employee ergonomics awareness education and reduce the hazards (where technologically and economically feasible) in these defined areas of operations, says David Jansen, ergonomics program manager for Washington state.

“Our rule is preventative in nature,” he says. “It is being phased in by industry category and business size and the first deadlines haven’t passed yet ... When fully effective, the rule will prevent 40 percent of work-related musculoskeletal injuries. We are confident it will be as or more effective than the OSHA rule. We also think it will be simpler for employers to implement.”

For a comparison between Washington’s and the federal standard, click here.

Hiring an ergonomics expert to help with compliance may help, but OSHA officials say that shouldn’t be necessary if the company creates an internal group of management and labor representatives to complete the research, implement available changes and prepare an action plan to address injuries as they are reported.

Another consolation: Even when the OSHA standard goes into effect, companies have a nine-month window in which to start informing employees about the standard and start receiving reports of any employee injuries. Complete implementation of any workplace changes is not required until four years from the standard’s implementation. BSCs will not immediately be liable for a system they don’t fully understand. Not to mention the fact that OSHA representatives at all levels of government have been made available to answer specific questions.

For a complete explanation from OSHA regarding the standard, click here.

The Chicago-area OSHA Training Institute also offers ergonomics planning classes.

Kristine Hansen is a business writer based in El Segundo, Calif.