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Rental Essentials: New Ergonomics Standard Set for Employers

If your employees feel pain, you could feel the strain IN AN AMBITIOUS plan to prevent 4.6 million musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) for American workers during the next 10 years, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration will begin requiring employers to educate their employees on MSD symptoms and take steps to make harmful jobs safer.

OSHA says that by complying with its new ergonomics program standard - which employers must do by Oct. 14 - American business will save $9.1 billion annually.

But business groups sharply disagree. The National Coalition on Ergonomics, which includes such big-business groups as Food Distributors International, filed a lawsuit in November with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia to overturn the new rule. "The rule's cost to food distributors alone could reach $22 billion in the first year of implementation," FDI president John R. Block said. The American Rental Association has also come out against the standard.

WHAT THE RULES REQUIRE Under OSHA's definition, MSDs include muscle strains and tears, ligament sprains, joint and tendon inflammation, pinched nerves and spinal disc degeneration. Some common forms of MSDs are low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and carpet layer's knee.

Party rental tasks that could cause MSDs include jobs requiring heavy lifting (more than 75 pounds at a time), repetitive work (such as steadily typing at a computer for more than four hours daily) or work requiring awkward postures (such as working with the back, neck or wrists bent for more than two hours per day).

By Oct. 14, employers must have a program in place to give employees basic information about:

- common MSDs and their signs and symptoms

- the importance of reporting MSDs to management as soon as possible

- how to report MSDs in the workplace

- risk factors and job activities associated with MSDs

- the OSHA ergonomics standard.

OSHA has developed information sheets that businesses can simply distribute to employees and post in the workplace to comply with these requirements.

Once this information has been shared with employees, the employer need do nothing more unless an employee reports an MSD or "persistent signs or symptoms of an MSD." Further action is not required for workplace accidents such as slip-and-falls - only by MSDs.

Once the employer gets this report, he or she must determine if the problem is serious enough to trigger an evaluation of the worker's job.

CAN A QUICK FIX FIT? Some jobs connected with only minor incidences of MSDs can be corrected with what OSHA calls "quick fixes." Quick fixes might include team lifting, using mechanized material handlers, adding floor padding for kneeling and standing, and simply alternating work tasks or body position.

If the MSDs are more serious or the quick fix doesn't solve the problem, then the employer must develop and implement a full-blown ergonomics program for the job and others just like it.

The required program is highly structured and requires setting up communication channels between employees and management and examining questionable jobs using OSHA's hazard analysis criteria. For employees who complain about MSDs, the employer must provide access to health care professionals and must allow temporary restrictions on or even complete relief from work - with pay and benefits - until the problem is solved or 90 days pass.

Employers with 11 or more employees - including part-time and temporary - must keep written or electronic records for three years or until replaced by updated records.

ALREADY HAVE A PROGRAM? OSHA says employers that have an ergonomics program in place may continue it without complying with the new standard, provided:

- the program was written and implemented before Nov. 14, 2000

- the program includes critical elements of the OSHA standard, such as distribution of information on MSDs, job hazard analysis, training, MSD management and program evaluation

- an MSD management policy is implemented by Jan. 16, 2002.

Failure to comply with OSHA regulations can be costly. OSHA will inspect workplaces for compliance in response to worker complaints, and fines run into thousands of dollars.

RESOURCES For more information about the ergonomics program standard, visit the OSHA Web site at or call your local OSHA office.

How big an impact will the new OSHA ergonomics standard make on the party rental industry?

Special Events Magazine took an informal survey of 19 large party rental companies in the United States to determine their awareness and opinion of the new standard. We also wanted to learn how many have formal workplace safety programs in place already. Here is what they told us.

Q: Have you heard of the new OSHA ergonomics standard?

YES 68% NO 32%

Q: If you know about the standard, how do you think it will affect the industry? (multiple answers possible)

It will make the workplace safer for employees 38% It will not increase workplace safety 46% It will be costly for my workplace 46% It will not increase costs for my workplace 11%

Q: Do you have a formal workplace safety program at your facility?

YES 58% NO 42%

Q: If you have a formal safety program, why did you institute the program?

I did it voluntarily 73% It was required by state/local law 27%

Q: If you have a formal safety program, does it work? (multiple answers possible)

It reduces injuries 73% It saves on workers' compensation expenses 55% It saves lost work time 36% It has no effect 9%

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