Worker ProtectionPrivate Sector Ergonomics Programs Yield Positive Results Gao ID: HEHS-97-163 August 27, 1997
Private sector employers spend about $60 billion each year on workers' compensation claims associated with musculosketal disorders, which involve illnesses and injuries linked to repetitive stress or sustained exertion on the body. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has tried to develop a workplace standard that would require employers to reduce ergonomic hazards in the workplace. A draft standard that OSHA circulated for comment in 1995 generated stiff opposition from many employers because they believed that it required an unreasonable level of effort to address ergonomic issues. Since then, Congress has limited OSHA's ability to issue a proposed or final ergonomic standard. GAO found that employers can reduce the costs and injuries associated with ergonomic hazards, thereby improving employees' health and morale as well as productivity and product quality, through simple, flexible approaches that are neither costly nor complicated. Effective ergonomics programs share certain core elements: management commitment, employee involvement, identification of problem jobs, development of solutions, training and education of employees, and appropriate medical management. OSHA may wish to consider a framework for a worksite ergonomics program that gives employers the flexibility to introduce site-specific efforts and the discretion to determine the appropriate level of effort to make, as long as the effort effectively addresses the hazards.
GAO noted that: (1) experts, research literature, and officials at GAO's case study facilities generally agreed that effective ergonomics programs must have the following core set of elements to ensure that ergonomic hazards are identified and controlled to protect workers: (a) management commitment; (b) employee involvement; (c) identification of problem jobs; (d) development of solutions (that is, controls) for problem jobs; (e) training and education for employees; and (f) appropriate medical management; (2) although the ergonomics programs at all of the case study facilities displayed each of these elements, there was often significant variety in how they were implemented; (3) this variety typically resulted from factors such as differences in the facilities' industries and product line, corporate culture, and experiences during the programs' evolution; (4) the processes used by the case study facilities to identify and control problem jobs were typically informal and simple and generally involved a lower level of effort than was reflected in the literature; (5) controls did not typically require significant investment or resources and did not drastically change the job or operation; (6) officials at all the facilities GAO visited believed their ergonomics programs yielded benefits, including reductions in workers' compensation costs associated with MSDs; (7) these facilities could also show reductions in overall injuries and illnesses as well as in the number of days injured employees were out of work; in some cases, however, the number of restricted workdays increased as a result of an increased emphasis on bringing employees back to work; (8) facility officials also reported improved worker morale, productivity, and product quality, although evidence of this was often anecdotal; (9) demonstrating overall program performance was complicated by uncertainties associated with determining what types of injuries should be considered MSDs and analyzing the program's effect on injuries in light of other complicating factors, such as limited information collected by employers on the costs to implement the programs; (10) GAO's work revealed that positive results can be achieved through an approach incorporating certain core elements that are implemented in a simple, informal, site-specific manner; and (11) federal and state-operated OSHA programs have undertaken a number of initiatives that can provide employers flexibility, consistent with these case study experiences; however, questions remain as to whether these efforts alone are sufficient to protect employees from ergonomic hazards.