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Subcommittee Reviews Plan to Reduce Ergonomics Injuries

The House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held an April 25 hearing to review a plan by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to reduce ergonomics injuries. The subcommittee heard testimony from one witness, Assistant Labor Secretary for OSHA, John Henshaw.

Mr. Henshaw described OSHA’s plan, which consists of four main components to address ergonomics hazards in the workplace: guidelines, enforcement, compliance assistance, and research.

The first set of guidelines by OSHA will be issued this year, and will make specific recommendations to employers on how to best address ergonomics hazards in the workplace. The guidelines are voluntary and will take into consideration the diverse needs of different work environments.

“One question will, and should, be asked: why guidelines and why not a rule?” said Mr. Henshaw explaining that the “previous and now discredited ergonomics standard” took 10 years and $10 million to complete. He said that the goal of the administration is not to rush into issuing a rule. “Our approach calls for the development of industry-and-task-specific guidelines,” the first of which will address the nursing home industry.

OSHA will base its enforcement authority on the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s general duty clause, which requires workplaces to be free of hazards, including ergonomic hazards. “To ensure that our staff can recognize ergonomic hazards and suggest effective abatement methods, OSHA will conduct specialized training for its employees,” Mr. Henshaw told the subcommittee.

OSHA will expand compliance assistance on ergonomics to employers with a special emphasis on Hispanic and immigrant workers, many of whom work in industries with a high number of ergonomics hazards. Mr. Henshaw stressed that OSHA has already begun “to address this problem in a number of ways, including the establishment of a Hispanic Workers Task Force, and the creation of a 1-800 number accessible to Spanish-speaking individuals.”

Additionally, OSHA will encourage and stimulate ergonomics research, with specific emphasis on identifying the gaps in the information that is available to employers and workers.

“I have to admit that when I first heard about OSHA’s plan to reduce ergonomic injuries, I had some real concerns,” said Subcommittee Chair Charlie Norwood (R-GA). “I have to admit that the prospect of being cited under the General Duty Clause sends shivers down the spines of most employers.”

Rep. Major Owens (D-NY), Ranking Member on the Subcommittee, also expressed concerns that the plan is a voluntary one and will do nothing to help workers because the enforcement plan is vague.

Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA) agreed. “The proposal is based on volunteerism,” she noted. “Companies can abuse the guidelines,” she said, and added, “The rate of fatalities in the workplace is going up.”

Rep. Norwood asked Mr. Henshaw “to keep this subcommittee fully informed on the progress of this strategy, keep all of us informed, minority and majority.” Appealing to his colleagues on the minority side he said, “I want to ask you to join us. Work with OSHA to help make this work, and together we can monitor its progress and help direct its success.”

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