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OSHA Enforcement of Ergonomic Issues on the Rise

Monday, May 03, 2010
By Anne Kramer

OSHA officials convened on April 7, 2010 to discuss their strategic plan for developing OSHA goals of protecting worker health and safety. Among the hottest of the issues was the question of the appropriateness of the enforcement of the removal of ergonomic hazards by the agency.

It seems the agency is moving toward incorporating the survey of ergonomic hazards as normally considered issues. According to OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab, ergonomic issues are a “key strategic component,” and that as a step in the direction of upping emphasis on the category of ergonomic hazards, a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) column will be added to the OSHA log next year. In the meantime however, ergonomic hazards will continue to be a growing concern begging the question “what can be done until then?” Specifically called into question was the appropriateness of the falling of ergonomic hazards under OSHA’s long established “General Duty Clause.”

The General Duty Clause (29 CFR §1903.1) appears in a section of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) policy which governs all employers subject to OSHA regulation. It has been called a “catch-all” by its detractors who imply it can be used to enforce regulations not on the books. This may not be the case however, as it applies to ergonomic dangers. According to OSHA’s Acting Director of Enforcement, Tom Galassi, in order to document a general duty clause violation for ergonomics, the agency would need only to “demonstrate industry recognition and feasible ways to abate the hazard.” This may prove to be less difficult than it seems on the surface as Assistant Secretary for OSHA Dr. David Michaels states his office will be “providing [compliance officers] with the support and back-up they need to enforce under the general duty clause.” As the push under the General Duty Clause for the workplace to be “free of recognized hazards” seems to be underway, OSHA officials are looking to step up enforcement of readily identifiable ergonomic hazards.

Enforcement, in fact, is on the rise. While the number of inspections to be conducted in fiscal year 2010 stands at 40,000, OSHA is in the process of hiring 110 new compliance officers this year alone. In addition, Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) field inspection staff is being shifted to enforcement activities, effectively increasing the number of compliance officers on the street. The plan is to noticeably step up the number of inspections by 2011.

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