New OSHA Regulations for 2017: What do they really mean for employers?

[fa icon="calendar'] Jan 17, 2017 11:28:46 AM / by Deborah Lechner

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued several new regulations in the last months of 2016, set to go into effect in January 2017. Since they were announced, the regulations have been subject to more than a little misinterpretation and confusion. Many employers are left wondering, for example, if they can still drug test employees who are injured on the job (they can). We share the following information, of course, with the understanding that the incoming Trump administration’s staunch anti-regulation stance may change things after the inauguration.

To clear up some of the confusion, let’s look at the two major regulations that will go into effect in January:

  1. Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses (including new regulations for drug testing)
  2. Update to General Industry Walking-Working Surfaces and Fall Protection Standards

The Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses rule has several components, and was introduced to protect employees from retaliation when reporting an injury on the job. Specifically, it states that employers must have a reasonable procedure for employees to report work-related injuries and illnesses, and employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees for reporting an injury.

So, what is a reasonable procedure for reporting an injury? According to OSHA’s rule, a reporting procedure is reasonable “if it is not unduly burdensome and would not deter a reasonable employee from reporting.” For example, consider a worker who experiences minor pain in their shoulder for a day or two after repeated lifting, then reports the pain after it increases on the third day. Under OSHA’s new rule, it would not be reasonable for the employer to discipline the worker for not reporting the injury immediately when they first experienced minor pain. The rule also explicitly states that an employee cannot be retaliated against or disciplined for reporting an injury.

You may be wondering, why would an employee be disciplined for reporting an injury? Well, many companies set a goal of having zero injuries that they strive to maintain each year. What’s more, if they achieve this goal, employers often reward employees for having zero injuries. The problem? Employees do not want to report injuries that preclude the company from reaching its zero-injury goal. Underreporting of injuries can be the result. OSHA uses the new rule to address this issue by no longer allowing a “substantial reward” such as a cash prize drawing for zero injuries.

When injuries are not reported to management, nothing is done to correct the problem. If employers do not have accurate injury data because of underreporting, they will not have the information to make necessary changes to fix the situation. In the right environment, employees should be encouraged to report any discomfort early so it can be treated with first aid and is therefore non-recordable. The goal is to prevent the discomfort from becoming a recordable injury which sometimes results in lost time, restricted duty, extensive medical costs or surgery.

Some employers implement a proactive workplace early intervention program. In this type of program, a physical therapist or athletic trainer is stationed at the workplace on a regular basis. The worksite clinician typically works with employees who self-identify as having musculoskeletal discomfort. They intervene by applying massage, hot or cold packs, adjusting the work station or advising the employee regarding work posture and positioning – all of these interventions are designated as first aid by OSHA and do not create a recordable injury. This early intervention has been shown to be very effective in reducing recordable injuries, workers’ compensation costs and improving productivity.  How often and for how long is dictated by the size of the company and the need.  For example, a large company with very strenuous work may need a clinician at the worksite 4-5 days per week. A medium-size company may need only half-day clinical coverage for a couple days per week.   

Another component of the Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses rule involves drug testing. Many employers panicked when they first saw this regulation, because it states that companies can be subject to citations for “blanket drug testing” after injuries. Some employers thought they would no longer be allowed to drug test employees suspected of being intoxicated on the job, but this is not the case.

If there is reasonable suspicion that an injury was caused by alcohol intoxication or drugs, an employer can test for drugs. For example, if an employee was seen behaving erratically by two other employees and later crashes a forklift with no other extenuating circumstances present, it would be reasonable to drug test this employee. However, if the employee reported a gradual onset of tendonitis that he/she feels is related to work, the employer cannot drug test. 

The second rule scheduled to go into effect in January 2017 is the Update to General Industry Walking-Working Surfaces and Fall Protection Standards. Slips, trips, and falls from heights or a working surface are a leading cause of injury on the job. Liberty Mutual’s Workplace Safety Index indicates that most falls are same-level falls. OSHA’s new regulation update gives employers more flexibility to choose which fall protection system to use to prevent falls, instead of mandating guardrails as a primary method of protection. According to Business Insurance, this rule is employer-friendly and therefore likely to stand under the new administration.

Regulations to prevent falls are a welcome step forward in protecting both employers and employees from the negative effects of these injuries. However, fall protection alone does not address the whole picture. It’s been shown that human factors are responsible for over 50% of the reason employees fall. 

ErgoSlipTripFallDiagramPurple-01.jpg

Issues like obesity, previous injury, hip strength, ankle stability strongly influence balance which in turn affects whether a person will fall after encountering a slippery or uneven surface. So addressing those human factors is important. But how can that be done effectively? Two important strategies are often overlooked:

  • Balance Testing (in the form of Physical Abilities Testing or PAT)
  • Balance Training

Physical Abilities Testing (PAT) that includes a component of job-specific balance helps to identify those who have adequate balance to do the job. PAT can be administered: 1) pre-hire to determine applicants’ balance abilities; 2) post-injury to see if employees have regained the necessary balance to return to work; and 3) periodically as fitness for duty testing to make sure that employees maintain the balance needed to do the job. Learn more about physical abilities testing by downloading our e-book.    

Balance Training can help employees improve both their static and dynamic balance abilities. Balance is not an innate human trait that someone either has or doesn’t have. Instead it is a skill that can be developed and improved upon. And studies show that it doesn’t take a lot of training to improve balance and decrease the incidence of slips, trips and falls.

Together these two approaches can effectively address the human factors that greatly influence falls. 

At ErgoScience, we offer physical abilities testing (including balance testing),  balance training and worksite prevention programs that reduce risk of injury.  For more information about these programs, contact Lane Savage at [email protected].When are Physical abilities test best performed

Topics: Workplace Safety, OSHA Requirements

Deborah Lechner

Written by Deborah Lechner

Deborah Lechner, ErgoScience President, combines an extensive research background with 25-plus years of clinical experience. Under her leadership, ErgoScience continues to use the science of work to improve workplace safety, productivity and profitability.