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    LABOR: Ergonomic accountability

    Bush's workplace-safety plan spares retailers new regulations, but voluntary compliance doesn't sit well with labor.

    By Jenny McTaggart

    The mere mention of the acronym OSHA is enough to make some retailers want to take a sick day. Many associate the term, which stands for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, with the threat of burdensome, costly regulations, ineffective bureaucracy, and--worst of all--no proven results.

    Since the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration moved to issue workplace injury rules to protect employees from health problems caused by repetitive tasks, the Food Marketing Institute and other trade groups have voiced their opposition strongly, citing the burden that would be placed on employers. They maintain that voluntary guidelines are the best method to prevent illness and injury in the workplace.

    Under President Bush, retailers and other businesses seem to be winning. The administration has decided to take a voluntary approach to preventing ergonomics-related injuries by issuing industry-specific guidelines rather than regulations. Companies that fail to implement them will not be in violation of the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, but they're still expected to keep their workplaces free from recognized serious hazards, including ergonomic hazards. In a nutshell, the repeat offenders will be the ones more likely to be monitored.

    So far, OSHA has released only one set of guidelines, for the nursing home industry. But retail grocery stores are next in line, mainly because ergonomics-related injuries suffered by the industry's workers rank near the top of OSHA's list. OSHA announced last June that it would be releasing draft guidelines for grocery stores and poultry processors by the end of the year. That deadline wasn't met, and at presstime an OSHA spokesman said there was no official release date.

    Once the initial guidelines are available, there will be a period for public comment, in which retailers and other interested parties can provide their input.

    Jim Koskan, corporate director of risk control at Eden Prairie, Minn.-based wholesaler and retailer Supervalu, has a bird's eye view of the process. He's the sole food retail and wholesale representative on OSHA's new National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics. The 15-member panel was set up at the end of 2002 with the goal of reducing repetitive-stress injuries, defining best practices, and teaching worker safety.

    The committee has met once, but it already has plenty on its agenda, according to Koskan. "When we had our first meeting, John Henshaw, the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health who's responsible for OSHA, said essentially that the broad goals of this committee are to help OSHA identify what it might take to put data into real practices that companies can follow. They want to do that with our assistance—looking at how to develop the guidelines, what kind of research we need to do, and how to structure our outreach initiatives so that we can help people work with these guidelines in a non-threatening manner," he says. The committee isn't focused on wholesaling or grocery, and is taking all industries into account.

    Although the panel was created after the grocery-specific draft guidelines were being formulated, Koskan says he and others in the industry have been asked to give their input. "OSHA has gone out and met with retailers to ask them what the guidelines should look like, which is a good thing. They've consulted a pretty good cross-section of the industry," he says.

    Supervalu's take on the guidelines is that they should be straightforward and non-threatening, says Koskan. "We suggest a document that illustrates a musculoskeletal hazard in the work environment, and then shows a potential control measure for it. It wouldn't be comprehensive enough to be turned into a standard."

    That's exactly what opponents of the voluntary guidelines fear, however. "Instead of regulating, they're coming up with a program that's going to be voluntary—but it's been voluntary for 100 years," says Jackie Nowell, director of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union's office of occupational health and safety. "This is the biggest workplace safety and health issue in the country, and in Canada and Europe. In those places, they deal with it, but here we're choosing not to because we're doing industry's bidding."

    Nowell claims that voluntary programs haven't made enough difference. She suspects that the draft guidelines for the supermarket industry will "go for the lowest common denominator," demonstrating standards that most businesses are already adhering to. "I don't know of a chain that wasn't doing what was already going to be the maximum in this standard. Supermarkets have nothing to fear. They redesign the front end of their stores every seven years," she says.

    'They're getting hurt'

    One of Nowell's other concerns is that without the threat of enforcement, companies will take advantage of the speed new checkouts afford by expecting employees to move at a breakneck pace. "We saw a little dip in the number of carpal tunnel syndrome cases when we started to redesign the checkstands. But then once a company gets workers comfortable, they go in and increase the line speed. The instant feedback that they get on inventory allows them to count what the cashier is doing. It's really a lot, and they're getting hurt," says Nowell.

    Improvements in checkout equipment and increased safety efforts have undoubtedly made a difference in the supermarket industry. FMI analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the industry has reduced workplace injuries and illnesses by more than one-third over the past 10 years—from 12.5 per 100 full-time workers in 1992 to 8.1 in 2001. Still, the decline has been somewhat gradual, and there remains room for more improvement.

    Supervalu's Koskan notes that there have been tremendous changes in supermarket jobs to enhance employee safety. "Today we have two belts—one that brings the product to the cashier and one that takes it away. We have scanners that automatically take care of the prices and weigh the product. The cash register is right at the front of the counter, so you're looking at the customer and the product as you key it in. That is eons away from the design that was pretty commonplace, say, 20 years ago," he says.

    But there still are stores that aren't taking steps to protect employees, according to Nowell. "Every time we need to rally workers to push for safety, they're lined up," she contends. "One thing we're adamant about is checker unload—where employees unload the groceries from the cart, scan them, and put them back in the cart. What we know from research is that that's really the worst kind of checkstand, but they're still out there."

    One retailer that has taken the initiative to prevent strain-related injuries is Quincy, Mass.-based Stop & Shop, says Nowell. "They have a great ergonomics program with committees in every store."

    Jim Ciaramitaro, Stop & Shop's safety manager, says the company doesn't separate ergonomics from its overall safety efforts. "Safety is a big umbrella, and ergonomics is one component. It's a major component, because when you look at where the injuries are happening in the industry, they're strain-related. In order to have a safety program in our industry, there should be an ergonomics focus," he says.

    As jobs in the supermarket industry become more automated, companies that can afford more expensive technology may come out ahead of the curve. Innovations like self-checkout and cake decorating machines could drastically cut down on ergonomic injuries. But those solutions may not make sense for retailers who have a much smaller labor force.

    "Our industry has a thirst for technology and efficiency, but it has to be feasible for an organization to adopt. And we need to know it will work before we put it in place. Some may look at that and say our industry isn't supportive of safety and health changes because they cost too much. That's not true. We're very supportive of those changes; we just have a higher level of need for data that proves the benefits," says Koskan. That's because the industry's profit margins are so low, he notes.

    Definition delayed

    There's a potential hurdle to keeping track of ergonomics injuries, at least in 2003. OSHA has postponed releasing a definition of musculoskeletal disorders and won't require companies to check MSD columns on their logs. Instead, employers that are required to keep records of workplace injuries will be asked to check a column for "injury" or "all other illness."

    That concerns UFCW's Nowell, who notes that if the problem isn't specifically addressed, people may assume it doesn't exist any more. "We're losing the statistics. Until the administration says they're sure what the definition is, they don't want to put it in the log. My fear is that by the time the Bush administration is out of office, nothing will show up and people will assume we got rid of the problem. They'll say, 'Look, this voluntary stuff really works.'"

    For the next few years at least, it's up to retailers to prove that voluntary guidelines can work.

    Associate Editor Jenny McTaggart can be reached at jmctaggart@ progressivegrocer.com.

    By Jenny McTaggart
    • About Jenny McTaggart

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