Rosemary Stewart of Elida, Ohio, was convinced that her employers were asking too much. She was frequently required to lift heavy loads, and she didn’t have access to Lift Tables or other material handling equipment. Some of these loads weighed up to 100 pounds, and Stewart rightly worried about the potential for injury.
Surely there must be some kind of law about this, she reasoned. So she wrote a letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). A little while later, she received a response — though it wasn’t exactly what she had hoped to hear.
“We apologize for the delay in our response to your letter,” wrote Thomas Galassi, Director of Enforcement Programs at OSHA. “You had a specific question regarding a possible OSHA statute for physical lifting procedures.”
Stewart wanted to know what sorts of limits OSHA places on manual lifting tasks. After all, repeated lifting of heavy loads is a leading cause of lower back pain, which is the second-most prominent cause of missed work days (after upper respiratory infections). Even worse, back conditions are the most common cause of legal disability for people under age 45, according to researcher Alan Hedge of Cornell University.
The Defeat of the OSHA Ergonomics Program
The people of the United States depend on OSHA to correct employers that expose their workers to risk of injury. A standard for safe lifting seems like a crucial element of that mission.
“OSHA does not have a standard which sets the limit on how much a person may lift or carry,” Galassi wrote in response to Stewart’s letter. He went on to cite the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) lifting equation, which combines risk factors like frequency, height, and additional movements (bending or twisting, for instance) on a given lifting task to determine the safe weight limit. But that equation is just a tool; it’s not a legal requirement.
To understand why OSHA doesn’t place limits on manual material handling tasks to protect workers, you have to go back to the tense political climate of the early 2000s. Throughout the ’90s, OSHA worked on a comprehensive standard for workplace ergonomics. In 2000, the agency issued a completed Ergonomics Program, including legally enforceable regulations.
The following year, though, President Bush signed Senate Joint Resolution 6 into law. That resolution eliminated the OSHA Ergonomics Program. Congress then invoked the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which prohibits federal agencies from issuing any regulations that bear significant similarities to a rule that’s been struck down. Effectively, Congress and the Bush Administration blocked OSHA from issuing standards related to ergonomics (such as Stewart’s worrying lift requirements) in perpetuity.
Representative John Boehner explained Congress’ opposition to OSHA’s ergonomic standards on the floor of the House, calling them “over-reaching.” He described the rule as “unworkable, excessive regulation that will create more problems than it solves.”
How OSHA Issues Fines for Ergonomic Failures
Despite the removal of the OSHA Ergonomics Program, OSHA has issued fines for ergonomic violations several times since 2001. Galassi’s response to Stewart’s complaint explains how they can do that, legally, without specific ergonomic laws on the books.
“While OSHA does not have a specific standard for the hazard you raised,” he wrote, “employee exposure to hazards related to heavy lifting and back injuries may be addressed under Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, commonly referred to as the General Duty Clause.”
The General Duty Clause requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees…”
So, for Stewart, there may yet remain some legal recourse for her untenable lifting responsibilities. OSHA would just require legal proof that her employers are subjecting her to a risk of “serious physical harm.”
Thanks to the CRA, the legalities of ergonomics in the United States will remain murky. But employers can protect their employees and escape the risk of OSHA violations by providing workers with adequate lifting equipment, such as Lift Tables, Tilt Tables, and Bin Tippers. The best way to protect workers is to take the load from their backs.
Regardless of the law (or lack thereof), operations that remove ergonomic risks see fewer losses due to missed workdays, inefficiency, and costly worker’s compensation payouts. Investing in lifting equipment is the right thing to do, even if federal regulators cannot specifically mandate the practice. Hopefully Rosemary Stewart of Elida, Ohio, can convince her employers of this fact.
“Congressional Record, Volume 147 (2001).” GPO. United States Government Publishing Office, 2001. Web. 15 May, 2016.
Galassi, Thomas. “Standard Interpretations – Section 5(a)(1).” OSHA. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, United States Department of Labor, 4 May 2015. Web. 15 May, 2016.
Hedge, Alan. “Lifting and Back Stress.” Cornell. Cornell University, Aug. 2013. PDF. 15 May, 2016.
Purswell, J.P and Purswell, Jerry. “Citation of Ergonomic Hazards Under the ‘General Duty Clause’ – An Update.” Proceedings of the XXIIIrd Annual International Occupational Ergonomics and Safety Conference, Baltimore, MD, USA, 9-10 June 2011. Ed. International Society of Occupational Ergonomics and Safety. PDF. 15 May 2016.