HR Management & Compliance

Health And Safety: Landmark Ergonomics Regulations Finally Approved; What You Need To Know

Following years of controversy and false starts, historic workplace ergonomics rules aimed at reducing repetitive motion injuries are in effect as of July 3, 1997. Certain employers whose workers have repetitive motion disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis will have to implement a specific ergonomics program to eliminate or minimize the injury risk.

Join us this fall in San Francisco for the California Employment Law Update conference, a 3-day event that will teach you everything you need to know about new laws and regulations, and your compliance obligations, for the year ahead—it’s one-stop shopping at its best.

Are You Covered?

The rules are relatively brief but complex.1 They apply only if you’re a private, municipal, or state employer with 10 or more employees and you meet all five of these conditions:

  1. Two or more of your employees suffer repetitive motion injuries.
  2. More than 50% of each injury is attributable to repetitive work activity.
  3. The injured employees performed work that involved identical repetitive motion activities, such as word processing, loading, or assembly.
  4. The disorders were musculoskeletal injuries identified and diagnosed by a licensed physician.
  5. The injuries were reported to you within the same 12-month period. Note that only injuries occurring after July 3, 1997, are covered.

Same Injuries Required?

It’s clear that the rules would be triggered if two workers suffer wrist injuries from word processing, for example. However, John MacLeod, executive officer of the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, told CEA that as long as the task is the same, the injuries do not have to be. So if one employee develops a neck problem and another a wrist injury, and both disorders resulted from the same work activity, such as word processing, the new rules would likely come into play. But if two workers develop back problems, one from lifting boxes and the other from assembling parts, the rules may not apply because the work activities would be considered different.

Three-Step Ergonomics Program

Many employers already take a proactive approach to ergonomics problems in order to reduce workers’ compensation costs, maintain productivity, and boost morale.

But if you are covered by the new rules, you must now develop a more formal plan to minimize repetitive motion injuries. The plan must include:

  1. Worksite evaluation. You need to review each repetitive motion activity performed by injured employees to identify what is causing the problems. Alternatively, you can analyze a representative sample of jobs or operations that involve such repetitive motion activities.
  2. Exposure control. After identifying the problem, you must correct it as soon as possible. If you can’t resolve the problem completely, you have to take steps to minimize it. The law requires you to consider engineering solutions such as work station redesign, adjustable fixtures, or tool redesign. You’re also obligated to study administrative measures-including job rotation, work pacing or rest breaks-that could help get the injuries under control.
  3. Employee training. Finally, you need to explain to employees the types of activities associated with repetitive motion injuries. Discuss the symptoms and consequences of such disorders and the importance of reporting these symptoms and injuries to you. You must also describe your ergonomics program, including the methods you’re using to reduce repetitive motion problems.


The regulations don’t list specific penalties, but Cal/OSHA can always sanction you for not complying with its rules. Fines can reach $7,000 per infraction and as much as $70,000 for willful or repeat violations.

Note that a good-faith effort to implement each of the three phases of an ergonomics program will likely satisfy your obligations under the rules. However, you will fall short if you knew of different measures that could have resulted in fewer injuries without unreasonable added cost-but didn’t adopt them.

Rules Under Attack

Labor and employer groups are already challenging the new regulations in court. Worker advocates contend the standards are too weak, while some employers claim too little is known about repetitive stress injuries to warrant the regulations. Both sides will present their arguments at a court hearing scheduled in September. The rules will remain in effect unless the court overturns them-which is unlikely. We’ll keep you posted.

For More Information

If you have questions, contact your nearest Cal/OSHA Consultation Service office. But because the law is so new, even Cal/OSHA may not have all the answers yet. For a list of their phone numbers, see your telephone directory.


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