Sree's Stories

TAKING IN THE SITES / By SREENATH SREENIVASAN

Work Place Safety Is Growing Concern


Monday, April 6, 1998 / CyberTimes
afety in the work place is an increasing concern for businesses of all sizes, and Karen Jacobs, president of the American Occupational Therapy Association, knows why. "There's a direct connection between how much attention is paid to safety issues and the bottom line," she said.

Whether the problems involve conventional occupational hazards or gun violence in the work place, "companies know prevention can result in tremendous savings," she said. As part of "national occupational therapy month," Jacobs and her association are promoting the prevention and treatment of work-place injuries, and using the Internet to do so.

While the Internet does have information on dealing with RSI and ergonomics, it is clear that the growing use of computers and online computing are adding to the problem.


A logical starting place for a Web tour about work safety is the site of OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Almost every major site dealing with safety on the Web has a link to this site. It has details about the agency's history, structure and regulations.

Instead of just putting brochures online, the site uses technology to be truly useful. For instance, its "establishment search" allows users to see a company's OSHA inspection history and find out what violations, if any, it has been charged with. It also has a series of interactive "advisers" on subjects such as fire safety or confined spaces, which allow users to answer questions to find out if if they are in compliance with OSHA regulations.

Not to be confused with OSHA is NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the federal institute that conducts research on the prevention of work-related illnesses and injuries. Among the subjects covered on its extensive site are noise protection, mining accidents and its health-hazard evaluation program.

The NIOSH site also has a page of links to ergonomics and repetitive strain injuries, or RSIs, which play an important role in work-place safety. But Jacobs warned, "Ergonomics has become such a buzzword, and a lot of the sites are passing off nonergonomic products as the real thing."

While the Internet does have information on dealing with RSI and ergonomics, it is clear that the growing use of computers and online computing are adding to the problem. To learn how to prevent problems caused by poor planning of your desktop, visit the Typing Injury FAQ, a guide to preventing repetitive strain injuries caused by use of computers. The "Healthy Computing" section on the IBM site is another valuable resource. It uses a slick combination of graphics and easy-to-understand text to explain how you can reduce the risk. Everything from how to carry equipment to stretching exercises is covered.

Recent news reports show that not only those who work with a keyboard and mouse are susceptible to repetitive strain injuries. Meat packers, poultry processors, garment workers, checkout clerks and auto workers are among the most likely to be injured as a result of labor-intensive tasks. Unfortunately, the Web does not reflect the wide range of industries that are affected.

"Since those who work with computers are most likely to have access to the Internet and most likely to be able to make these pages, that's what you see," said Dan Macleod, an ergonomics consultant in New Jersey. "Shop-floor workers do not have ready access, and so sites for them are not as common," he said. Even the United Auto Workers site deals more with ergonomic issues related to computing than mechanical work.

Of course, there is some opposition to increasing safety regulations. The National Coalition on Ergonomics, which represents 300 trade associations, has a site that outlines the position of OSHA's opponents. An excerpt about ergonomic regulations being considered by the OSHA reads: "The regulations would force unproven and financially prohibitive changes onto every private employer in the nation. Yet, despite the billions of dollars it would cost, the proposed ergonomic regulations won't necessarily mean a single prevented work-place injury or illness."

Proponents of increased vigilance on repetitive strain injuries are not staying away. The AFL-CIO site has a section called "Stop the Pain" that declares: "Some employers have launched a campaign to prevent OSHA from taking action to protect workers. They are also moving to change state laws to make it difficult, or impossible, for injured workers to collect workers' compensation for these injuries."

Safety training for the regular work force can be daunting enough without worrying about one group of additional workers that shows up each summer across the United States: teen-age workers. The Labor Department's statistics show that of the 3 million teen-agers who work every summer, at least 200,000 are injured.

In order to reduce that injury total, the department offers "Work Safe This Summer: Employer's Guide to Teen Worker Safety," which has a checklist for supervisors and a list of prohibited jobs.

There are also examples of tactics used by some companies in dealing with teens. These include giving them specially designed uniforms, teaching them about child-labor laws and even the unusual step of "offering a $100 reward to workers under 18 who report that they have been asked to perform hazardous jobs."

Some U.S. companies may benefit from using the Web to research how safety issues are handled overseas. One useful site is that of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health in Britain, which handles issues across Europe. Also worth a visit is the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki, which has an expansive site in English that deals with such subjects as safety for aging workers and work psychology.

Of course, accidents and negligence are not the only causes of problems in a work environment. To learn about the latest developments in the prevention of violence in the work place, see the special section of OSH.net, a site run by Occupational Safety and Health Resources in Oliver Springs, Tenn.

Visiting some of these sites should give you the confidence to try the "safety challenge" offered by Safety Online, which bills itself as a "cybermall for safety products and advice." This interactive quiz tests knowledge of flammable materials, electricity and asbestos, among other topics.


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