General safety (legislation) clauses across the globe encompass the requirement for an organisation-wide ergonomics programme, says Cardinus’ Jon Abbott.
Across the European Union musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the biggest cause of absence from work, accounting for 40% of workers’ compensation costs and a reduction of around 1.6% of gross domestic product[i]. In the US, similar statistics show MSDs account for 33% of all workers’ compensation costs, with a direct cost of approximately $20 billion to the US economy[ii].
MSDs provide a chunk of the estimated $3 trillion cost to the global economy from injury and illness[iii].
When working across multiple regions in a global environment, safety managers will want to understand the key regulations related to MSDs so as not to fall foul of the compliance bodies and to reduce employee injury and workers’ compensation costs. It’s not always clear what regulations national, or international, bodies put in place specifically for ergonomics so organisations can reduce the risk of MSDs.
European ergonomics regulations
There is no specific ergonomic regulation that covers workplace ergonomics across the EU. Instead, EU Directive 89/391, the OSH ‘Framework Directive” sets out the requirements for member states to put in place a structure for assessing and monitoring workplace health and safety with the ultimate aim to reduce injuries and illnesses at work for the benefit of employees.
The framework directive does a number of things, such as:
- Sets out the definition of the working environment
- Aims to establish equality in health and safety for the benefit of all workers
- Obliges employers to take appropriate preventive measures to reduce injuries
- Introduces risk assessment as a key element of the directive and defines the elements of a risk assessment
- Puts emphasis on health and safety management
The directive is a fundamental step in putting the onus on the employer to take responsibility for the health and safety of their employees by providing a safe workplace that does not detrimentally affect their health.
Under the employer’s obligation to adopt appropriate preventatives to reduce injury, in the introduction of risk assessments and in management level controls, it can be read to include ergonomics.
However, the directive is primarily for EU member states to act upon. It has been transposed variously into laws such as the Law of August 4, 1996 on well-being of workers in the performance of their work (Belgium), Labour Code, Legislative Part 4: Occupational Health and Safety: Article L4131 (France) or Arbeitsschutzgesetz (Germany). In some cases ergonomics is only briefly mentioned as part of broader health and safety obligations such as guidance on workplaces (VDUs and workstations) or work equipment. However, the need for risk management remains and organisations can be fined for not putting in the appropriate preventative measures.
In 2013 the EU dropped a proposed directive specifically on the issue of ergonomics as part of a scheme to reduce unnecessary regulations and bureaucracy. This would have marked a big change in the way the EU acts towards the curbing of MSDs. However, the EU continues to work on the reduction of MSDs through educational initiatives.
US ergonomics regulations
OSHA, like EU-OSHA, has no specific regulation that applies directly to ergonomics. However, under the OSH Act 1970 General Duty Clause, employers have an obligation to keep the workplace free from hazards, which include ergonomic hazards.
OSHA will, and have, cited and fined organisations under the General Duty Clause for ergonomics issues as part of its enforcement program. Employers are encouraged to reduce ergonomic risks and to put in place a program to effectively deal with issues.
OSHA’s enforcement is site specific and uses the following four criteria to assess ergonomic hazards:
- whether an ergonomic hazard exists
- whether that hazard is recognised
- whether the hazard is causing, or is likely to cause, serious physical harm to employees
- whether a feasible means exists to reduce the hazard
OSHA will not enforce against employers who are making good faith efforts to reduce risk, but will target those employers whose corporate commitment to positive safety reduction does not manifest itself in its actual activities.
Australia ergonomics regulations
The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 and WHS Regulations provide the basic underpinning in Australian law and states that there is an obligation upon employers to provide a health and safety system of work – where that work may be, and that training should be fit for purpose.
This translates as workstation assessments for ergonomics, with guidance issued by the government on how these should be undertaken. However, as with the EU and the US, there are no specific regulations governing ergonomics.
In the absence of ergonomics regulations employers are encouraged to take the ILO’s guidance and assess and remove workplace risks to health. Additional guidance on ergonomics can often be found from the regional or national enforcement agency, as well as international bodies such as the International Labor Organization.