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New ergonomics ruling and its effect on labs.

To the delight of the AFL-CIO and the distress of some businesses, OSHA has entered the world of ergonomics. The OSHA Ergonomics Standard that became effective January 16, 2001, is designed to prevent hundreds of thousands of crippling repetitive stress injuries. It is not only controversial, it is already headed to court in a lawsuit backed by numerous businesses.

Ten years in the making, the final OSHA rule requires employers to identify and fix jobs that cause musculoskeletal disorders. This means employers must provide employees with information about musculoskeletal disorder signs and symptoms and the importance of early reporting. Next, when a worker reports these signs or symptoms, the employer must determine if the job is causing a problem and take a leadership role to implement control measures. These measures are designed to help the employee recover from the injury by a temporary assignment to lighter duties at the same pay, providing access to a health care professional, and/or educating the employee about ways to avoid injury.

In some industries, it sounds like a lot of work for the employer. Terry Jo Gile, Administrative Coordinator and Laboratory Safety Officer at BarnesJewish Hospital in St. Louis, MO, commented, "There will be some implications for hospitals and laboratories, but I don't anticipate it will impact on us a lot. We have already done a number of things." She expects the ergonomics regulation to mainly affect the areas of phlebotomy, histology, and transcription, where employees perform repetitive jobs 8 hours a day.

The OSHA description of actions that trigger musculoskeletal disorders includes repetitive motions like continuous typing; forceful exertions like heavy lifting; awkward postures caused by reaching, twisting, bending; contact stress like repeatedly hitting the forearm on the sharp edge of a counter; or constant vibration from machinery.

Because musculoskeletal disorders often start innocuously as painful joints, wrists, shoulders, forearms, knees; pain, tingling, burning, or numbness in hands or feet; shooting or stabbing pains in arms or legs; swelling or inflammation; back or neck pain; stiffness; or as white fingers or toes, it is important to be aware of the early symptoms. Objective physical findings that suggest an individual may be developing musculoskeletal disorders include decreased range of motion, deformity, decreased grip strength, and loss of muscle function. Without intervention, these signs and symptoms are ultimately diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger, tendonitis, herniated spinal disk, rotator cuff syndrome, sciatica, Raynaud's phenomenon, or other injuries. An occupational therapist is often the health care professional of choice to treat musculoskeletal disorders, and it is important that employees have access to the therapist or another health care professional.

When transcriptionists at BarnesJewish Hospital began to develop carpal tunnel syndrome, the hospital addressed the problem by replacing chairs. "They actually did a study with employees and let them choose the chair that they wanted." said Gile. "What we found out," she noted, "was in most cases the employee either needed a footrest or he/she needed to lower the chair by about an inch" to reduce the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. (See table for more information on setting up a comfortable workstation.)

Once new chairs were in place, three shifts of different people sat in each chair each day. Gile remarked, "We found people would not take the time to adjust the knobs so that the chair was comfortable for them. We spent quite a bit of time working with employees, showing them how to adjust the chair so it was comfortable. Those who take the time to do it have really noticed it makes a big difference in work."

She also commented that regular work breaks are important in repetitive jobs. Taking 5 minutes to get up, stretch, and walk around every hour is more effective than a 15-minute break every 4 hours. Still, she admitted, "getting people to do that is difficult. They'll do it as long as the supervisor supports it and is there to direct it. People get involved in their work and they don't think about it."

At least two Internet companies, WorkPace ( and MacBreakZ! (, have products that are capitalizing on the need to prevent repetitive stress injuries. Both are selling software that helps the computer user remember to take regular breaks, exercise, and track the time spent on the keyboard without a break.

Although few would contest the importance of structuring the workplace so as to minimize injury, the US Chamber of Commerce contends that the standard violates the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which prohibits issuing standards that would affect any worker's compensation law. They also claim OSHA. failed to follow procedure about issuing a standard, that necessary scientific and medical information has not been provided, and that the cost of compliance is far in excess of the estimated $4 billion.

But at least one study, published in 1995, indicates that industry fears about costs may be unfounded, according to an article in The New York Times (December 20, 2000).

The Office of Technology Assessment, a Congressional research agency, took a look at OSHA's cost projection methods and the actual cost of major OSHA rules over the years. The agency found that OSIHA tended to overestimate the cost of its rules, as did the affected industries.

So what will be the effect of the new OSHA standard in laboratories? As Gile summed it up, "It's probably too soon to say."

A comfortable workstation

Visual display terminal (VDT) tasks should be organized in a way that allows employees to vary these tasks with other work or to take mini-breaks or pauses while at the VDT station. To work on a computer without having problems, the computer table and chair should be placed in a way that enables the employee to keep:

* Head and shoulders upright

* Trunk of the body perpendicular to the floor

* Upper arms and elbows close to body

* Wrists and hands straight--not bent up, down, or sideways

* Feet resting flat on the floor or on a stable footrest.

Source: VDT Workstation Checklist. Full checklist available at
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Author:Hitchens, Kathy
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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