The Labor Department Thursday took a first step toward extending federal regulation of workplace safety to the world of ergonomics in an effort to stem repetitive-motion injuries.
At a press conference here, Labor Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole unveiled a set of “voluntary” guidelines for guarding against such injuries in the meatpacking industry, an estimated 30% of whose workers are hurt annually.
The union that represents most of those workers said the guidelines will not work because the government is not putting commensurate effort into inspecting meatpacking plants.
Dole also announced Thursday that the government has begun developing a new set of federally enforceable safety regulations setting ergonomic standards for all industries. Ergonomics is the science of suiting work environments to the worker.
These standards are not expected to take effect for two to three years because of the extensive federal “rule-making” procedure that requires the government to collect information from the public and allow all affected industries to comment.
Dole characterized the meatpacking guidelines, which are scheduled to take effect in January, as only a “first step” in a new push by the department to regulate ergonomics in the workplace.
Workplace injuries from repetitive motions--such as striking computer keys, fileting fish and checking out groceries--are regarded as the nation’s leading occupational hazard, accounting for 48% of all workplace illnesses reported to the government in 1988. The 115,400 cases reported in 1988 were five times as many as reported in 1981.
Part of the increase in repetitive motion illness is attributed to increased awareness. But higher demands for productivity among employers in all segments of the economy are also blamed for the phenomenon.
While hand and wrist “cumulative trauma disorders” suffered at keyboards by office workers and journalists may have received more publicity, the low-technology meat-processing industry has an injury rate as much as 10 times higher, Dole said.
A 1988 congressional subcommittee report on meatpacking injury rates described knife-wielding slaughterhouse workers making as many as five cuts into each animal carcass every 15 seconds.
Department officials said the guidelines issued Thursday were hammered out cooperatively by the American Meat Institute, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which will eventually enforce the new recommendations.
However, spokesmen for the union, which represents about two-thirds of the estimated 140,000 meatpacking industry workers, harshly criticized the department’s effort, charging that Dole was not providing tough enough inspection to enforce the rules.
The guidelines call for OSHA to assign a lower priority to inspecting those meatpacking companies that sign an agreement with the government to develop ergonomics programs. But the union said the industry’s safety record is so dismal that such firms should not be trusted.
Two of the largest meatpackers, IBP Inc. and John Morrell & Co., have been fined millions of dollars in the past three years by OSHA for safety violations. IBP was separately fined millions more for deliberately under-reporting injuries at its flagship plant in Nebraska.
“This is an industry that since 1983 has known it has a major (repetitive-motion) problem and hasn’t done anything about it,” said Deborah Berkowitz, UFCW’s director of safety and health.
OSHA has long been criticized by occupational safety experts for slackening its inspections in favor of “cooperative efforts” with employers during the Reagan Administration.
Under the Bush Administration, OSHA has imposed numerous large fines on businesses. Last month, for example, it reached a settlement with Ford Motor Co. in which Ford agreed to redesign jobs throughout its U.S. operations to reduce repetitive-motion injuries.
However, suspicions about the agency’s commitment remain.
“It’s understandable why the union’s upset--you’re talking about an industry that has been notorious for failing to do things on its own,” said Sidney Shapiro, a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina’s law school who specializes in OSHA regulations.
Dole told reporters that the guidelines carry a simple message: “Repetitive-motion illnesses can be minimized through proper workplace engineering and job design, and by effective employee training and education.”
She said the meatpacking guidelines would in practice be enforced by OSHA through “targeted” inspections, in which regulators respond to complaints or else routinely look into any firm that does not agree to observe the guidelines or is suspected of violating its agreement to follow them.
The American Meat Institute has in recent years published its own in-house ergonomic guide that stresses proper design of knife handles and cutting platforms and suggestions on workplace layout and organization. Many of those proposals were in Thursday’s guidelines.
Assistant Labor Secretary Gerard F. Scannell, who heads OSHA, said the agency guidelines concentrate on four related elements: work-site analysis, to identify problems and hazards in the existing plant layout; hazard prevention and control, to improve the engineering and design of the assembly line and the tools used; medical management, to improve identification and treatment of ergonomic problems, and training and education to make it easier for workers to take steps to protect themselves from repetitive-motion problems.
On the whole, the guidelines themselves are general and low-key, rather than precise and prescriptive.
“Work stations should be designed to accommodate the persons who actually work on a given job,” the OSHA manual says. “The work space should be large enough to allow for the full range of required movements, especially where knives, saws, hooks and similar tools are used. Work methods should be designed to reduce static, extreme and awkward postures; repetitive motion and excessive force.”
Ergonomic experts within OSHA have for months been preparing to issue the same sort of voluntary guidelines to be applied to all industries, arguing that workers and employers are often ignorant of how ergonomic problems develop and how to take precautions to avoid them.
They contended that quickly issuing “general industry” guidelines would have an immediate educational benefit.
However, Labor Department officials overrode that plan in favor of the lengthier process of developing legally enforceable ergonomic standards.
“Rule making is going to take a hell of a long time,” complained one ergonomic specialist. “We wanted to get these things out there.”