WASHINGTON — A few years ago, Huntsman Packaging Co. spent $4 million to develop, patent and install automatic bag-wicketing equipment to reduce repetitive-motion injuries. Company officials say the project was a success: The changes drastically cut ergonomic injuries and raised employee morale.
But Huntsman's situation strikes at some of the key questions manufacturers have about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's plan for national ergonomics standards. How prevalent are such injuries, and will businesses have to spend as much as Huntsman to resolve them?
Business lobbying groups argue that the proposed standards would be too costly. Even some plastic processing safety officials who are sympathetic to efforts to solve workplace injury problems question parts of OSHA's proposal.
"You end up with government bureaucrats dictating manufacturing processes," said Mark Wygonik, director of technology and regulatory affairs at the Flexible Packaging Association in Washington.
Business trade groups have threatened to block the proposal in court and are urging Congress to continue to block the rules or wait for a study by the National Academy of Sciences.
But several plastics industry safety experts interviewed said they do not see the OSHA proposal as a significant burden, and they said their own ergonomic programs have cut injuries.
At Huntsman Packaging, the ergonomic injuries could be severe. One worker at the film extruder's Macedon, N.Y., plant complained about black and blue wrists after a day spent grabbing stacks of plastic bags and putting them on wickets — a motion repeated at least 1,200 times in a typical shift.
Other workers complained about pain or muscle aggravation from such repetitive, physical work, and once or twice a year an employee would require surgery, said plant manager Tom Bowden.
So the company spent about $2 million to develop an automatic wicketing system, and another $2 million to install those machines on 16 of its 36 bag-making lines.
The money that Salt Lake City-based Huntsman spent to develop its autowicketing system is probably an extreme example of costs. But the company was thrilled with the results — it did not have any cases of carpal tunnel syndrome serious enough to require surgery in 1999, compared with two in 1997 and one in 1998.
And those workers who have problems but do not require surgery are able to come back to work sooner on the new equipment, Huntsman officials said. The equipment, which took 10 years to develop, also lets the plant do the same work with fewer employees, Bowden said.
Huntsman picked up an award from OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs Participants Association for developing the autowicketer.
"The regulation does not bother us," Bowden said. "We've been told by OSHA's representatives that we are ahead of the game."
Tim Khoury, corporate safety director at automotive molder Blue Water Plastics Inc. in Marysville, Mich., thinks the OSHA program is not needed.
"There's enough pressure on business from an insurance standpoint to lower your costs," said Khoury, who is vice chairman of Michigan OSHA's General Industry Safety Standard Commission.
But Khoury said the rule gives too much discretion to OSHA to decide whether a company has done enough to solve repetitive-motion injuries.
"The way it's written, it's up to the whim of the compliance officer," he said.
Khoury said musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, are a significant problem, and Blue Water has taken extensive steps to reduce them.
But he questioned OSHA's plan to pay victims of repetitive motion injuries higher lost-time wages than other injuries. And Khoury said OSHA's proposal sets too low a threshold — one diagnosed injury — before requiring companies to take action.
"What they should do is say, `If there are enough [injuries] that you can develop a trend, then address that,'|" Khoury said. "But one? Give me a break. How is a manufacturer supposed to deal with that?"
He said Blue Water regularly works with employees to reduce ergonomic problems. It has installed automated clipping equip- ment to remove runners from parts and put in shelves to make it easier to pack molded air ducts.
Blue Water spends less than $2 per $100 of payroll on workers' compensation costs, and it has received state ergonomics awards, he said.
Khoury said one of the real challenges in designing better workplaces is that not every worker will suffer ergonomic injuries, and a solution for one employee may not work for another.
"The problem with ergonomics is that you can do everything ergonomically and you are still going to have injuries," he said.
OSHA, on the other hand, argues it needs to reduce the 1.8 million ergonomic injuries that occur each year. It said the proposal will save businesses $9 billion in workers' compensation and other costs, and cost businesses $4.2 billion to implement.
MSDs are expensive. They account for one-third of workers' compensation costs because recovery times are longer than other workplace injuries, according to Michigan's OSHA agency.
Custom injection molder Nypro Inc. implemented a program to reduce MSD injuries in 1997, prompted by the earliest drafts of OSHA's proposal.
Custom injection molder Moll Industries Inc. hired its first safety manager six years ago, and made reducing ergonomic injuries one of the position's top two goals.
Alan Berdal, safety and loss control manager for Knoxville-based Moll, said it has lowered overall injuries 80 percent: "We've always worked hard toward reducing and eliminating MSDs. Now we'll have to formalize it."
He said OSHA's standard will be a challenge but will not pose significant problems for Moll.
Several companies interviewed said they have taken common steps to reduce MSDs:
Rotate jobs so employees do not do the same work all day. Companies said this is a popular tool. Clinton, Mass.-based Nypro used to rotate jobs daily in its assembly areas but now does that two or three times a day, primarily because of ergonomic concerns.
Bring in physical therapists to show employees proper stretching exercises.
Moll said its most expensive solution was installing robots to pull parts from a molding machine, eliminating significant bending for employees and making it safer by no longer requiring them to reach into the machine.
Blue Water puts in robots when feasible for things like trimming runners, and, based on worker suggestions, redesigned air duct production to cut employee movement.
Rollprint Packaging Products Inc. in Addison, Ill., raised the tables where rolls of plastic film sit, reducing the amount of bending employees have to do. It also installed pulleys, said Mark Pederson, environmental and safety coordinator for the film converter.
Many of the fixes can be cheap, according to plastics industry safety experts. But sometimes the job-shop nature of custom molding can make it more difficult to justify expenses, such as robots to trim parts out of the molding machine, unless the order is a big one, Khoury said.
OSHA said employers will spend an average $150 per work station to fix problems. The agency said if employers adopt a quick fix that solves a specific hazard, they can avoid having to put in a full ergonomics program. OSHA said it will grandfather in effective programs.