What the Future may Hold for US Federal Ergonomics Regulations

What the future may hold for US federal ergonomics regulations

ISE Magazine January 2020 Volume: 52 Number: 3

By Timothy (Tim) Pottorff


In 1992, I became the first ergonomist at Alcoa’s Warrick Ops in Newburgh, Indiana. I was there at the same time CEO Paul O’Neill was transforming the safety culture of the company, as well as its financial performance.

After 2½ years at Alcoa, I spent 22½ years as a workers’ compensation consulting ergonomist for Zurich Services Corp. While at Zurich, I conducted somewhere north of 25,000 job, task and workstation assessments across multiple industries. I also advised clients on ergonomics issues, including the requirements of the 2000 OSHA ergonomics standard. This was not a popular standard among our clients and several of us on the ergonomics team quietly referred to it as “The Ergonomist Full-Employment Act.

”This “one-size-fits-all” ergonomics standard was intended to revolutionize the way work is done in the U.S., the handling of work-related soft tissue illnesses and injuries in the workplace and how these injuries were to be treated by the worker’s compensation system. Regulation efforts since have shown that a focus on occupational-specific standards are a more effective approach.

Ergonomics guidelines started in 1991 when the George H.W. Bush administration implemented the “Ergonomics Program Management Guidelines for Meatpacking Plants.” This was a voluntary guide with the goal of “preventing ergonomic disorders through sound safety and health pro-grams.” OSHA was very specific in saying the meatpacking guidelines were advisory, and that they would “rely on Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (the General Duty Clause) for enforcement authority.

”The 2000 federal ergonomics standard, issued under the Bill Clinton administration, was met with fierce resistance by business groups. Largely written by government, labor union and academic stakeholders (Linda Delp, Zahra Moj tahedi, Hina Sheikh and Jackie Lemus, “A Legacy Of Struggle: The Osha Ergonomics Standard And Beyond,” 2014), the standard was controversial from the outset and heavily criticized by business groups that had largely been left out of the standard-writing process and included only during the “comments” period. The standard included many of the things we expected to see, such as job and task assessments, training and worksite improvements.

But one of the most controversial parts was the language that superseded state workers’ compensation reimbursements and requirements for restricted and lost workday cases. Ac-cording to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at the time, “The final standard also required employers to provide 100% of pay and benefits for employees assigned to light duty and 90% of pay and 100% of benefits for employees who cannot work.”

After the 2000 U.S. presidential election changed the balance of power in the executive branch, the standard went into effect on Jan. 1, 2001. In March 2001, the standard was rescinded in Congress via “resolutions of disapproval.” These resolutions were provided for under the Congressional Re-view Act of 1996 (the first time it had been employed) and were subsequently signed by President George W. Bush. The rescinding legislation required OSHA to make any future ergonomics standards “substantially different.” Since then, from a federal standpoint only additional “voluntary” guidelines have been issued. The Bush administration published guidelines for Poultry Processing and Retail Grocery in 2004 and for Shipyards in 2008. In 2015, under Barack Obama’s administration, a guideline for inpatient healthcare workers was is-sued.

Since 2015, things have been quiet on the federal regulatory front but have picked up steam in California. In 2018, Cal/OSHA issued a mandatory, occupationally specific ergonomics standard, the Cal/OSHA Hotel House-keeping Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention Pro-gram (MIPP) Standard, which went into effect July 1, 2018. Cal/OSHA stated that hotel housekeepers were a “high hazard occupation” and experienced the highest rates of work-related musculoskeletal disorders of any occupation in the state.

The MIPP requires every lodging establishment in the state, regardless of the number of rooms, to conduct annual assessments of every housekeeping task, look for specific risk factors, train every housekeeper and supervisor in the state and make improvements based on the results of those assessments. There are also specific record-keeping requirements in the standard, including a 72-hour timeframe that hotels have to provide any and all of their MIPP records to housekeepers, union representatives and/or the state, upon request.

In our work with California hotel properties that are com-plying with the MIPP, we find that those properties that actually apply the lessons learned from the assessments are gaining in measurable ways via improved work postures that reduce the time required to clean rooms and a reduced risk for injuries and illnesses. Improved tools and equipment also allow housekeepers the opportunity to get rooms cleaner, reduce stress on the body and reduce the risk for exposure to non-ergonomic issues such as needle sticks.

The more hospitality properties embrace the findings of the ergonomists completing the MIPP work, the more they succeed. In a low-margin industry (average 5% annual return on investment) a small labor savings per room when cleaning bathrooms or making beds, or a higher third-party guest satisfaction rating, may allow a property to improve its ROI over the long term. Thus, simple changes may improve ROI by 20% or more.

This is not unheard of. When O’Neill retired from Alcoa, the financial performance of the company had improved such that profits had increased 500% during his tenure – and the lost workday case rate had dropped from 1.86 to 0.25.

One lesson from California may be the adoption, at a federal level, of occupationally specific ergonomics standards and regulations for high-risk jobs. Simply employed, this approach may prove much more effective and affordable than a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

As we ergonomists know, optimally we want to accommodate 90% of the population. However, there usually has to be some flexibility and adjustability in the means to that end.

Source: IISE Magazine March 2020 https://www.iise.org/iemagazine/2020-03/html/pottorff/pottorff.html