Proposed new federal rules on ergonomics in the workplace could mean changes for auto-related companies that have never given the issue a second thought.
Under guidelines proposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in late November, businesses as diverse as insurance offices, ad agencies, car dealerships and service shops would have to ensure that employees are safe from such dangers as muscle strain, backaches and stiff necks on the job.
Ergonomics has long been a concern at auto factories and large parts plants, but not at the thousands of smaller employers and service-industry companies that make up the rest of the auto industry. OSHA's sweeping proposal wants virtually all American businesses to try to rid workplaces of conditions and practices that put workers at risk.
Officials from OSHA and other U.S. health agencies say the problem is more serious than it seems. Seemingly simple workplace strains cost U.S. employers and the workers' compensation system as much as $20 billion a year in direct costs and perhaps $40 billion more in such indirect costs as lost productivity. An estimated 1.8 million workers a year report medical problems with so-called musculoskeletal disorders, ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome to pulled back muscles.
The automakers themselves are among the most active advocates of ergonomic science. General Motors, Ford Motor Co., and other manufacturers spend millions of dollars every year on ergonomic factory improvements. New plants are now routinely designed to minimize worker strain. DaimlerChrysler - whose new Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, will be ergonomically friendly - is developing a 3-D computer system that will let engineers measure the 'muscle torque' required to perform every job in its plants. Over the past five years, GM has reduced its global injury rate by some 40,000 incidents a year. In the late 1980s, GM's Saturn Corp. built its assembly lines with springy wooden floors to reduce backaches and joint fatigue.
According to the new OSHA proposal, any employer not in the construction, maritime or agriculture industries now will be required to implement ergonomics programs. The programs must include reporting of ergonomics incidents, employee training and documented efforts to correct on-the-job safety issues.
'A lot of actions are going to be required in this - compliance, training, education,' said Mike Morrissey, spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association. 'There are certainly going to be some impacts on dealerships.'
Morrissey said NADA plans to file comments with the U.S. Department of Labor on the proposed new rules.
The issues could range from the way an auto dealership technician works under a car to the way an operator at an insurance claim office sits at her computer terminal. Of special interest to regulators is curbing the incidence of repetitive-stress syndrome, which can be caused by factory line tasks, typing, material handling jobs and other jobs in which the same motions are repeated frequently.
'A lot of things in the workplace are going to change under these rules,' predicts Richard Wyatt, an ergonomics consultant with Aon Worldwide Resources, a Milwaukee insurance and health company that has worked with automotive companies. 'There may even be issues with how long an employee sits at a desk without taking a break.'
OSHA has safety enforcement jurisdiction over all American business. In 25 states and territories, OSHA rules are enforced by state safety agencies. But those states must adopt standards that match OSHA's.
Some states have begun adopting ergonomics guidelines. California has approved a set of rules, but they are different from the new OSHA proposals. North Carolina and Washington are pursuing their own ergonomics rules.
Now that OSHA has published its proposal, industry will have several months to challenge the specifics before they become law. But an OSHA spokesman said last week the rules could be approved by the end of next year. State safety agencies would then have an additional six months to implement their own mirror versions.
If adopted as expected, the nationwide effort could cost U.S. industry billions of dollars to correct workplace problems. OSHA estimated that most fixes will fall under $200. But there is no way to know how extensively most American workplaces will need to be changed.
For example, some musculoskeletal aggravations are caused by improper desk height. The question for an office manager will be whether to find a way to adjust its height or invest in new office furniture.