Washington state: Experts say state-mandated ergonomics regulations can reduce injuries
With the recent move in Michigan to create a state ergonomics standard, the debate over the effectiveness of mandated regulations to reduce musculoskeletal disorders continues to rage in the workplace health and safety community. However, according to a recent study, ergonomics standards can make a difference in reducing MSDs, and they may be a critical component in motivating employers to address risks.
Michael Foley, an economist at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, is coauthor of a study that focused on the now-defunct ergonomics standard that was adopted in Washington state in 2000. Under the regulations, employers were required to eliminate physical risk factors -- such as awkward postures, high hand forces, highly repetitive motion, repeated impact, awkward lifting, and vibration -- from their workplaces.
After its adoption, officials scheduled a six-year phase-in process where employers came into compliance based on their size and industry. However, after a protracted legal and public relations challenge by the business community and employer groups, the regulations were repealed in 2003 in a ballot initiative.
Foley and his fellow researchers launched a study, which was published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, to examine how employers and workers responded to the ergonomics standard and whether the regulations had an impact on reducing MSD rates. The researchers analyzed the results from employer surveys covering more than 5,000 workplaces in 2001, 2003 and 2005. The results were compared to a baseline employer survey conducted in 1998, before the regulations were promulgated.
The researchers found that from 1998 to 2003, there was a reduction in the number of reported MSD exposures among employers in the highest-hazard industries. After the repeal of the rule, however, Foley said reported hazard exposures increased.
Other highlights of the study included:
- Employers who took steps to address workplace musculoskeletal risks reported positive results in injury and absenteeism reduction.
- Larger workplaces in high-hazard industries were more likely to take action to address risks and used a wider variety of resources to address ergonomic issues.
- Fewer employers believed musculoskeletal disorders were not a problem for their workplace in 2005 than in 1998.
Standard improves motivation. Foley said although there is good evidence that ergonomic interventions result in reduced injuries and costs, the study suggests that voluntary efforts -- without the threat of enforcement -- may do little to encourage action by employers most in need of improvement. While most workplaces said they took steps to reduce MSD exposure in 2001, the study found that this gain was reversed in the 2003 and 2005 surveys.
"The large employers in the highest-hazard industries were well on the way to reducing hazards by 2003 when the rule was repealed," the researchers wrote. "Likewise, it is evident that hazard reduction was no longer a priority once the threat of enforcement was gone."
March 12, 2009
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