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CHICAGO-Many companies are voluntarily addressing a wide range of workers' musculoskeletal problems without waiting for federal or state governments to adopt ergonomic standards they would be required to follow.

Representatives of dozens of companies, unions, university researchers and consultants met recently in Chicago to share information about effective ergo-nomics practices and programs as part of a proactive approach to resolving problems.

The conference was organized primarily by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Participants supported proactive activities as a way to improve worker productivity and ultimately reduce companies' costs, including workers compensation claims. However, many also acknowledged the continuing scientific controversies, including the extent to which ailments are caused by workplace exposures as well as how best to prevent them.

"Whatever the controversy, there is a need to move past the controversy and solve the problem," said Dr. Linda Rosenstock, director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in Washington.

Many major U.S. industries-"from assembling autos to disassembling chickens"-face a significant problem due to musculoskeletal injuries and illnesses that affect workers' lower backs and upper extremities, often because of repetitive motions, speakers said.

In many cases, "workers and employers have recognized the scope (of problems) for a long time and are trying to do something about it," Dr. Rosenstock said.

The size of the problem is significant, according to NIOSH's statistics.

Back disorders among U.S. workers in 1993 accounted for 27% of all non-fatal occupational injuries involving days away from work. An average lower-back workers compensation claim costs $8,300, more than twice the $4,075 average cost for all of compensable claims combined.

In addition to lower-back injuries, many companies are concerned about musculoskeletal disorders affecting the soft tissues of a worker's neck, shoulder and arms. Ailments include tension neck syndrome, tenosynovitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

In 1994, 332,000 musculoskeletal disorders due to repeated trauma were reported in U.S. workplaces, representing 65% of all illness cases reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For all types of repetitive stress injuries, U.S. employers spend $20 billion annually in workers comp costs and $100 billion on lost productivity, employee turnover and other indirect expenses, according to NIOSH.

While "no one ever died of an ergonomic injury," many workers suffer severe pain and experience a limited ability to perform basic life functions, such as brushing their teeth or lifting a child, said Gregory Watchman, who recently became acting assistant U.S. secretary of labor overseeing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In the wake of Joe Dear's resignation, Mr. Watchman pledged he would continue to push for reinvention initiatives, including helping employers solve ergonomics programs and developing new ergonomic standards (BI, Jan. 13).

The conference is "the most important" meeting since the agencies were established in the 1970s, said Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO director of occupational safety and health. "This will move the issue out of the political arena and back to the safety and health area," she said.

During the most recent Congressional session, a rider on the OSHA appropriations bill prevented the agency from addressing ergonomic standards until the rider expired in October, she said.

Drafting ergonomics standards that can apply to several different industries is a challenging task because "there is no overriding solution to musculoskeletal disorders," NIOSH said in its draft, 116-page primer "Elements of Ergonomics Programs." The draft manual released earlier this month, which is available to employers, is part of NIOSH's effort to improve workplace ergonomics programs.

However, NIOSH has found that effective ergonomics programs in diverse industries usually address seven steps to reduce and prevent musculoskeletal injuries.

Here is a list of those steps and some examples of companies that found them effective:

Look for signs of a potential problem in the workplace, including worker complaints of pain or job tasks that require repetitive, forceful exertions.

Having hospital orderlies redraft an ergonomics checklist to assess workplace problems was an encouraging sign because it showed they "took ownership of it," said Suzanne Rogers, an ergonomics consultant from Rochester, N.Y.

Show management commitment in addressing possible problems and encouraging worker involvement in problem-solving activities.

Hay & Forage Industries in Hesston, Kan., finds that members of a special peer review team often can help a worker solve an ergonomics problem using a step-by-step approach involving a questionnaire, videotaping and brainstorming.

Offer training to expand management and worker ability to evaluate potential problems.

Gather data to identify jobs or work conditions that cause the most problems. Resources can include injury and illness logs, medical records and job analyses.

Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. reports a 58% decrease in the number of lost-time ergonomics cases and a 22% decrease in all OSHA recordable cases from 1990 to 1996. However, it is important not to rely on a single data source such as incident rate, said Tom Albin, an ergonomist at the St. Paul, Minn.-based manufacturing giant.

Identify effective controls for tasks that pose a risk of injury and evaluate these approaches once they have been instituted to see if they have reduced or eliminated the problem.

PPG Industries Inc. found that installing a pneumatic device to lift large drums of coatings and other paint-like products reduced injuries at its plants, said Larry Kreh, manager of ergonomics and loss prevention at the coatings and resins unit of the Allison Park, Pa.-based company. However, a machine designed to mechanically manipulate five-gallon pails is not working as successfully, he added.

Establish health care management to emphasize the importance of early detection and treatment of problems before impairment and disability occurs.

Minimize risk factors for problems when planning new processes and operations.

"We don't own the design process-the engineers do. So, an ergonomist should infiltrate the design process" to prevent manufacturing machines that require workers to assume awkward postures, said Brian Peacock, manager of General Motors Corp.'s manufacturing ergonomics laboratory in Warren, Mich. "The solution in the long run is to educate engineers.