Published January 2001

Two ergonomic standards: Which one should you follow?

This year, ergonomic regulations were finalized at state and federal levels. The legislation aims to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) with proper job or workstation design and appropriate tool or equipment selection.

Musculoskeletal disorders affect workers who repeatedly reach, bend over, lift heavy objects, work with vibrating equipment or do other repetitive motions. As reported by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the resulting injuries from these activities affect nearly 2 million workers every year, and about 600,000 lose time from work as a result.

In places with strong state safety and health programs, employers may be confused about which ergonomic standard applies to their workplace.

While OSHA passed final ergonomic regulations effective Jan. 16, 2001, some states with OSHA-approved plans developed and passed ergonomic legislation months ago. In addition, employers with employees in multiple states may need to comply with federal and state rules. In states under federal OSHA jurisdiction, the OSHA ergonomic standard must be followed. States that operate their own state safety and health plans can either adopt the OSHA standard or develop their own standard.

If a state develops its own standard, employers operating there must follow the local rules. Washington and California are two states that already have developed their own ergonomic standards. Although state-developed ergonomic programs must be at least as effective as the federal program, states can approach MSD issues differently. To illustrate two approaches, we can compare the Washington State Workplace Ergonomics Rule to the OSHA Ergonomics Standard.

Washington’s rule requires employers to identify and improve hazardous jobs before injuries occur. The rule applies to all industries and affects employers with caution-zone jobs, where the employees’ work includes physical risk factors such as awkward positions, high hand force, repeated impact or highly repetitive motions.

Employers with caution-zone jobs must provide ergonomic-awareness education to employees and supervisors and also must evaluate whether employee exposure in each caution-zone job represents a work-related musculoskeletal disorder hazard. If it does represent such a hazard, the employer must reduce the hazard below hazardous levels or to the extent technologically and economically feasible.

Washington’s program has a long implementation period — two to five years — and first focuses on larger employers (50 or more FTEs) in 12 industries having the highest risk of work-related musculoskeletal injury.

In contrast to Washington’s rule, OSHA requires employers to take action after an injury occurs. The OSHA standard also excludes some industries from coverage (e.g. agriculture, construction, maritime, railroad) and has a faster implementation schedule.

The standard requires employers to tell workers about common MSDs, MSD signs and symptoms, and the importance of early reporting.

After a worker reports symptoms of an MSD, the employer determines if the injury meets the definition of an MSD Incident. If it does, the employer determines if the job exposed the worker to risk factors that could trigger MSD problems. If the risk factors meet this level of exposure, the job will have met an Action Trigger requiring the employer to implement the complete OSHA program.

These summaries briefly demonstrate different approaches to ergonomic programs. The Department of Labor and other local professionals can assist you in determining how to keep your workplace in compliance. For more information on the OSHA ergonomic program, contact the U.S. Department of Labor or access OSHA material at For information related to Washington’s ergonomic program, access

Jack Goldberg is President of Personnel Management Systems Inc., with offices in Everett, Kirkland and Tacoma. The PMSI Web site is

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