Vol. 45, No. 4
While Goldkist and other companies grapple with ergonomics issues, many companies are hesitating, waiting on the federal government’s final regulations. “About one-third of the companies out there are taking a proactive stance,” says Larry Hettinger, director of human factors and ergonomics at Arthur D. Little in Cambridge, Mass. “The others are sitting back in a reactive mode waiting to see what happens with the proposed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard.”
Among the issues being debated is the degree of accountability OSHA proposes to place on companies for workers’ activities or conditions companies can’t control. “You can adjust a workstation all day, but you can only control someone’s work environment,” says John Frey, manager of corporate health and safety at Compaq in Houston. “When they leave work, they’re on their own.”
“The jury is still out on whether the issue belongs at work or not,” says Thomas Anderson, SPHR, chairman of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Workplace Health and Safety Committee. “To what degree do at-home activities contribute to what may happen at work? Work-related musculoskeletal injuries (MSDs) may have some merit, but should all the blame be placed on the employer? Some conditions or phenomena have little to do with work.”
Business also disputes the projected costs of OSHA’s proposal.
“There are economic risks if OSHA steps in and mandates ergonomics,” warns John Smoyer, SPHR, an HR consultant and SHRM committee member from Mesa, Ariz. “You can engineer things out, a lot of jobs can be improved, but you have to weigh the capital expenditures. If it’s too costly, companies will move everything off shore. That’s the risk everyone takes in pushing for mandatory controls, including government.”
But “Ergonomics is not just something the government says you have to pay attention to,” Hettinger believes. “It’s about increasing the bottom line and enhancing the workplace. There are some very intelligent companies like John Deere and Compaq who aren’t in the habit of throwing money away. They’ll tell you an aggressive ergonomics program pays off.”