Barring a court order that would overturn OSHA's new ergonomics standard, processors must have an ergonomics program in place by October. Just how tall of an order is compliance?

You could call it the calm after the storm -- THAT, OR the calm between storms.

Either way, on January 16 -- the day that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) controversial new Ergonomic Program Standard became effective - not a word on the matter was uttered by the incoming Bush administration, the outgoing Clinton administration, nor by the New York Times, CNN or any other major news organization. The silence was deafening, considering how loudly and rancorously the issue was debated last fall among Washington power brokers, politicians, union groups and dozens of manufacturing interests.

And, yes, also among food companies. By mid-January, media coverage of the issue may have subsided, but the rancor hadn't, and still hasn't. Although it now seems less likely that the Bush Administration will rescind or revamp the ergonomics rule, as many had speculated, its detractors still maintain that it amounts to a political rush job rammed through by President Clinton in the waning days of his administration. "You cannot do something this big and this fast and still do it right," complained Mike Baroody, Vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). NAM is one of numerous business and labor groups that are challenging the standard, with 12 lawsuits consolidated in a single proceeding in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia. The American Bakers Association is also among the litigants.

In a nutshell, the lawsuit argues that medical science does not adequately support the need for the standard, which must be grounded in an evidence-based significant risk; that the standard remains too vague and incomprehensible to meet administrative law or Constitutional requirements; that OSHA has produced a fatally flawed economic analysis; and that OSHA commited serious procedural violations, including the issuance of a completely altered final standard without a new round of public comment.

The standard also faces the question of whether it amounts to a federal system of workers compensation that pre-empts state law. According to David Farmer, vice president with the Alliance of American Insurers, the standard directly violates OSHA's authorizing act, which specifically prohibits the agency from superseding existing workers compensation laws.

It may be some time before the courts decide these matters, but the outcome will be of huge significance to the food industry, since the standard, which aims to reduce musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) resulting from repetitive motions, would require processors to have a ergonomics program in place by October 15.

So what are food processors to do about it? Perhaps the first thing is to acknowledge that many employed at the management level regard ergonomics programs as a thorn in their sides, albeit a necessary one. "Ergonomics encompasses such a multitude of tasks and motions - from the person in your accounting department striking a keypad all day to the packer who spends his day picking up 40 pounds, making a 90 degree turn and then turning back around - that it's extremely unwieldy," observed a former engineer for a large-sized bakery, who would only address the issue on the condition of anonymity. Further, he noted, safety programs like those required by the new ergonomics standard don't necessarily come cheaply. "That's not good news for low margin businesses," he said.

He recalled that while employed by a vegetable oil manufacturer, he was involved in an ergonomics project that called for replacing three case packers with a single robotic case packer.

Was it ergonomic concerns that drove the project?

"No," he replied. "We were able to eliminate the salaries of three people."

How much will it cost?

With food being a low margin business, many processors are understandably concerned about the costs involved in establishing an ergonomics program that meets OSHA's standard. And as the pending lawsuit suggests, the task of accurately estimating those costs is difficult at best. Depending on the source, estimates indicate that achieving compliance will cost American businesses from $18 billion to $120 billion a year, or result in a savings of $9 billion a year, with the latter figure based on estimated reductions in medical bills and worker's compensation costs.

Official OSHA estimates vary just as wildly, depending on the industry. For instance, projected costs for fur goods manufacturers is a mere $16,000. But for hospitals? $345 million. As for food, OSHA projects that the total cost of compliance across major industry segments, including meat, dairy, bakery, beverages, and preserved fruits and vegetables is somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. Once again, estimates vary dramatically depending on the product category. For instance, OSHA projects that the meat industry will need to spend $35 million to achieve ergonomic compliance, while the bakery industry will only end up spending only one-quarter of that amount, and the fats and oils industry just a fraction of what bakeries spend. "Ergonomics-related injuries are more common in sectors like meat, where high amounts of manual work are required. There's no automated means of deboning an animal that doesn't waste a lot of meat," observed Peter Budnick, CEO of Ergoweb, which consults to several industries, including bakeries, on ergonomics. Regardless of the food type, industry members may want to factor in the following formula from the Small Business Administration (SBA): OSHA typically underestimates the impact of a standard by one-fourth to one-tenth the actual amount.

The grandfather clause

Whether firms have qualified themselves for the standard's grandfather clause may also have some bearing on costs. The clause essentially permits a company to implement its own ergonomics program instead of complying with the OSHA standard, provided the program was written before November 14, 2000 and reviewed prior to January 16 to ensure it met requirements specified in paragraph c of the standard.

That particular paragraph states that the program must contain five elements. Since those elements form the nucleus of the standard, each is worth a closer look:

  • Management leadership -- This element calls for companies to demonstrate an effective MSD reporting system and prompt responses to reports, clear program responsibilities; and regular communication with employees about the program.

  • Employee participation -- Companies must demonstrate early reporting of MSDs and active involvement by employees and their representatives in the implementation, evaluation, and future development of the program.

  • Job hazard analysis and control -- For this element, companies need to demonstrate a process that identifies, analyzes, and uses feasible engineering, work practice, and administrative controls to control MSD hazards or reduce them to levels below those in the hazard identification tools specified in the standard.

  • Training of managers, supervisors and employees -- Employees must be advised of the program and their role in it; how to recognize MSD signs and symptoms; the importance of early reporting; MSD hazards in the company's workplace; and methods the company is taking to control those hazards.

  • Program evaluation -- Companies must conduct regular reviews of the program's elements and the effectiveness of the program as a whole.

Assuming that a company has met the requirements of paragraph c, it may be exempt from other provisions of the standard, or find that it has greater latitude in addressing them. For example, the standard requires written reports and formal reviews from health care providers who treat injured workers. But if an OSHA-endorsed ergonomics program is already in place, a more informal approach to corrective action can be taken, saving the employer both time and money. Because it is presumably easier for a company to tailor a program to its unique needs than adhere to a boilerplate standard, it is generally assumed that firms that have qualified for the grandfather clause will incur less expense than those that haven't.

Which raises the question of how many processors will be starting from scratch. While statistics concerning ergonomics and the food industry are hard to come by, a recent study conducted by the _Society for Human Resources management found that less than a quarter of all employers affected by the standard currently have an ergonomics program in place. OSHA estimates that the number is slightly higher for companies involved in general industry, about 28 percent. Not surprisingly, a survey by ISHN Magazine found that large companies ranked ergonomics as their number one priority for the year.

Truth is, many large processors - particularly those in the meat industry -probably have some form of an ergonomics program in place, though formats may differ somewhat from those of the OSHA standard. Budnick said that OSHA's general duty clause probably helped nudge some of these companies along, since it recognizes ergonomics as a potential hazard subject to citation. Likewise, a decade-old ergonomics standard issued by OSHA for the meat industry has evolved into a default standard for other segments of food, as well as for other industries, Budnick said.

Getting started

Those companies that haven't implemented a program need to get started, since estimates indicate that it takes from six months to a year to do so. But where do companies begin?

Budnick said that many firms invariably begin with ergonomics consultants, whose ranks have swelled considerably in the last year. He noted that many such companies have emerged from the health care sector and, accordingly, only concern themselves with related issues such as exercise and therapy. Companies shopping for consultants should also consider the engineering side of the equation, Budnick advised. Engineering-oriented firms, his own included, tend to "focus on the process -- the tools and equipment -- and how workers interact with that process" he said. That being the case, "when we consult on ergonomics, we also look at its relationship to productivity and product quality."

The very first step, he said, is to evaluate existing conditions. "A company needs to look at its own data, which its insurance carrier should have, and consider whether the numbers are indicative of an ergonomics problem. The answer will begin to paint a picture for you, including the direct medical costs you've incurred as a result of ergonomics-related injuries."

The second step is to get the engineering department involved. "Ask yourself -- and them -- where your worst bottlenecks are and it's likely that you'll also discover the source of an ergonomics problem," Budnick said. If that's the case, OSHA requires that the company establish a means to report the problem and address it.

At that point, companies should get other employees involved in addressing the issue, Budnick advised. One means is to set up a committee that draws from labor, management and engineering. Further, "a single in-house advocate should be appointed to oversee committee work and other aspects of the program," Budnick added.

He noted that ergonomics is often an effective catalyst for bringing management and labor closer together. Such was the case with Excel, a Schuyler, Neb.-based meat packer that significantly reduced tendonitis and other cumulative trauma disorders as a result of its union/management ergonomics program.

A unit of Cargill that employs 1,800 workers at the Schuyler site, Excel implemented the program in 1991 after learning that another, larger meat packer had been heavily fined by OSHA for ergonomic violations. "The thinking was, if it could happen to them, maybe we should take a look at what we're doing,'' recalled Jerry Mefford, ergonomics monitor/coordinator for Excel. Mefford said that Excel's management was quick to recognize the value of involving its union workers in the project. "By involving hourly employees, Excel knew it had a better chance of gaining their support for the program,'' Mefford said. "And as time passed, more and more of the program was turned over to hourlies like me."

As a result, Mefford's role as coordinator ballooned into a full-time job -one that he performs in conjunction with Excel's safety director. Mefford also sits on an ergonomics and safety committee that meets once a month to discuss plant activities that present potential ergonomic problems. Comprised solely of union members, the committee includes Excel's safety manager, training coordinator, slaughter manager, nursing staff and worker's compensation coordinator. During committee meetings, the nursing staff routinely presents a review of recent worker injuries in an attempt to pinpoint ergonomics-related activities. Their efforts are supplemented by the work of seven ergonomic monitors, who serve as the "eyes and ears of the plant floor," Mefford said. The monitors, who all perform other full-time job functions at the plant, conduct an hour survey of a designated plant area once a week and then report their findings to the committee. Mefford recalls that the program initially featured 15 monitors, but that number proved to be unnecessarily unwieldy for collecting and processing information.

The program encourages employees to report suspected ergonomics problems to their supervisors as early as possible. The employee is then sent to the plant nurse and, if necessary, placed on alternative duty in positions that have been set aside for just such cases.

To initiate its program, Excel referenced OSHA's ergonomics guidelines for the meat industry. The guidelines, which include provisions for management leadership, job hazard analysis and control and employee participation - closely echo those of OSHA's new Ergonomic Program Standard. Mefford emphasized that a program of Excel's magnitude requires time to develop and time to implement. He also stressed that employee involvement is critical.

Such was the case when Excel constructed a new slaughter floor facility at the plant a few years ago. "The engineers who were designing it came to the committee and said, 'We need to have you and your monitors go out and talk to people, and ask "If you were going to build this facility, how would you do it? Would ergonomic features would it include?"' Mefford recalled. "So we collected the information, took it back to the engineers and that was how they built it."

Remember to document

Budnick noted that some companies, especially smaller ones, may not have the funds to immediately invest in ergonomically-oriented equipment and tools. As a result, the new OSHA standard provides employers with the opportunity to make incremental improvements, he said. One inexpensive solution is to rotate employees through an ergonomically troublesome workstation, so that they have time to rest the bones and muscles in question, Budnick said. Another is to create a best practices manual that demonstrates ergonomically correct movements on a workstation-by-workstation basis.

Since the OSHA standard does not provide quantifiable measures to determine whether a practice is ergonomically correct or not, "we tell clients that your best friend is your document," Budnick said. "This is especially true for small incremental improvements. If you introduce a new tool to the process, perform an ergonomic analysis of the tool, and document, document, document!"