Safe and sound

Keeping employees safe and healthy is one of the biggest concerns for many business owners.

Three out of four companies in the Greater Cleveland have written programs on general safety and safety procedures, according to the second annual Workplace Practices Survey conducted by the Employers Resource Council and SBN Magazine. Approximately the same number of companies provide personal protective equipment such as work boots and safety goggles.

Even though workplace safety is a serious issue, it is the issue of ergonomics that has dominated the minds of both Congress and business owners.

Ergonomics has become a hot topic with the increase in the number of people suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, an injury caused by excessive and repetitive movement. Ergonomics legislation recently failed in Congress.

Without a doubt, the ethical side of maintaining a safe work environment offers a strong incentive for business owners to comply with governmental safety regulations. A company’s expenses due to lost-time accidents and litigation make compliance all the more compelling. But when all else fails, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) steps in as Big Brother, which can end up costing businesses.

Scott Lefelar, an attorney with Cleveland-based Millisor & Nobil Co. LPA, specializes in labor and employment issues. He is well acquainted with the outcry from business owners that occurred when the OSHA ergonomics proposal was moving forward.

Businesses were concerned because they believed “there wasn’t enough research done on some of the causes of repetitive stress disorders like carpal tunnel and whether or not this expensive proposal would actually do anything to help,” Lefelar explains.

As a result, the proposal was squashed and OSHA was asked to do additional studies on the effectiveness of the workplace changes suggested in the proposed legislation.

James Koewler Jr., a principal in the law firm of Kahn, Kleinman, Yanowitz & Arnson Co. LPA in Cleveland, counsels industrial, manufacturing and service industry clients in occupational safety and health compliance. He also watched the proposed ergonomics law closely and says business that were familiar with it, were, to say the least, not too happy.

“The devil is in the details,” says Koewler.

If an employee were absent due to an ergonomic-related health issue, the law would have overridden state workers’ compensation laws and required the employer to pay 100 percent of the employee’s wages for up to 90 days while he or she was off.

“That, in my mind was the biggest weakness this thing had,” he says.

Koewler feared the change would cause healthy employees to cry ergonomic injury. The proposed law also had another flaw, in his opinion. Any ergonomic injury would require employers to respond immediately, taking it for granted that the employee’s employment-related activities were the cause of the problem, regardless of individual activities outside the workplace.

There was no provision in the law for the ability to say after investigation that the injury was not job-related.

“Someone that has a sore elbow because they play tennis every night … if that person’s elbow flares up while at work … they (the employer) have to act as though the job is a problem job, even though it’s the employee’s lifestyle that seems to be the problem,” Koewler explains.

Most business owners agree the initial step in correcting ergonomic problems within any company is to identify problem areas themselves rather than incur the costs of an ergonomic inspector. How to reach: Millisor & Nobil Co. LPA, (440) 838-8800; Kahn, Kleinman, Yanowitz & Arnson Co., LPA, (216) 696-3311

Millisor & Nobil