The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (DLI) and Amazon are engaged in a high-stakes dispute over the agency’s ability to require changes at warehouse operations intended to reduce what the state characterizes as an unacceptably high number of ergonomic injuries. Ergonomics involves the study of how work can be structured to avoid musculoskeletal stress and injuries. Years ago, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) attempted — but ultimately abandoned — efforts to create an ergonomic safety standard for general industries.
Washington claims that poor ergonomic practices at the Amazon warehouses are a significant contributing factor to the high injury rate. Amazon denies the allegations, noting significant changes to the way work is designed and performed, including employee training on how to avoid injuries. The state OSHA agency says that regardless of these measures, the fast pace of repetitive work tasks at the warehouses creates the risk of serious injuries.
OSHA can cite employers for poor ergonomic practices under the General Duty Clause. Unlike its published safety standards, the clause requires a higher burden of proof to support safety citations. OSHA must demonstrate that the employer was aware of and did not follow accepted industry standards that led to a heightened risk of serious injury or death.
In the Amazon situation, the question becomes: how can the state agency demonstrate an industry standard for acceptable pace of work? There’s also a question of how the agency would establish a maximum work pace or limits on the number of repetitive tasks engaged in by employees over a period of time? While the Washington State DLI could try to mandate breaks, rotation among tasks, and other ergonomic measures, at some point these requirements could fundamentally change the nature of work performed at the facility. In the absence of generally accepted ergonomic safety rules, different OSHA agencies and even individual investigators could apply widely differing measures intended to reduce employee injuries.
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