Borough, school district unfazed by Bush rollback of ergonomics laws

Workplace injuries still a concern

Posted: Sunday, April 01, 2001

The new Bush administration repealed pending workplace rules on repetitive motion injuries, but the issue is far from dead, warned Kenai Peninsula employers.

"The problem is not going to go away. Whether we have the rules or not, we still have to address the issues," said David Gibbs, the safety manager for the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

"We still have the cost of these injuries looming over us. And that is a very significant cost."

George W. Bush called the proposed rules from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, set up at the end of the Clinton administration, too onerous and expensive for businesses. He said his administration will work on cheaper ways to address workplace safety.

Gibbs said he has mixed feelings about the controversial regulations. He called them flawed, expensive and "exceedingly complex," but noted that they contained portions he considers helpful, such as mandating employee participation in workplace improvements.

Workplace laws now in effect are out-of-date, he said, addressing repetitive stress injuries only under the vague, catch-all clause of "known workplace hazards."

But companies are still responsible despite the regulatory limbo.

"If they have an ergonomic problem, they still need to address it," Gibbs stressed.

Borough employees have had significant problems with back injuries and repetitive motion pains linked with keyboarding. He did not have figures available, but described some instances as expensive.

"I can tell you we have a lot of what would be defined as MSDs (musculoskeletal disorders) under these rules," he said.

The borough trains its workers on risks, evaluates work stations and provides modifications, he said.

"We are kind of responding to injuries," he said. "We are not in a preventative mode, where I would love to be."

Rebecca Byerley, director of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Central Peninsula General Hospital, agreed that people on the Kenai Peninsula are having the same problems afflicting workers across the nation. The hospital sees the problems from two sides, among its own employees and among its clientele.

The staff is trained to use equipment properly, to take frequent breaks with exercises and watch out for each other, to the point of tapping back-sliders on the shoulder.

"We here at the hospital have what we call 'posture patrol,'" she said.

Byerley declined to provide statistics on how many workplace injuries are seen in the Soldotna hospital, but said it treats patients with work-related neck or shoulder pain, chronic tendinitis and compressed nerves causing numbness, tingling or carpal tunnel syndrome.

Byerley and Gibbs attributed the problems to modern office work, especially the prevalence of computers.

"We cannot sit at a desk, talk on a phone and use a computer for eight hours straight," Byerley said.

"It is like putting your body through an ultra-marathon. It's not designed for that."

Many office work stations are not designed for that either. Many people are using chairs, desks and drawers designed years ago for use with pen and paper or a typewriter, she said.

We need new work habits and sometimes new furniture for the 21st century workplace, she and Gibbs said.

Dealing with the transition has encouraged the field of "ergonomics," which analyzes and improves physical interactions between people and their equipment. The term was coined around the end of World War II and started showing up in common usage in the 1980s.

Solving ergonomic problems involves both employers, who need to provide appropriate training, equipment and workers' comprehensive insurance, and the employees, who need to take responsibility for their own health and actions.

"It is amazing how many individuals do not use their work stations properly," Byerley said.

She and Gibbs offered the following tips for workers and their employers to ward off workplace pains:

n Keep in shape, avoiding unhealthy situations such as being overweight or smoking cigarettes, which contribute to workplace injuries.

n Use good posture to avoid muscle strain.

n Take frequent breaks, including getting up and stretching.

n Set up an appropriate workplace. The most important item is good chair, with adjustable tilt and height. Modern workplaces should be adjustable to accommodate different body types. Byerley and Gibbs recommend the firm Situs, which has an office in Anchorage, as a source of expertise.

n Keep all items you frequently need within easy reach, so you can get them without stretching or twisting.

n Cultivate proper work habits from the day you start the job.

n Check out your exposures at home. Your home computer or free-time activities may contribute to cumulative damage.

n Maintain a positive attitude: Be willing to change old habits and try new things.

Gibbs recommended that people learn the basics about ergonomics and apply them creatively to finding individual solutions.

"You don't have to spend thousands of dollars on a work station," he said.

"People really need to be careful."

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