Testimony of Tim Hammonds
President and CEO
Food Marketing Institute

to the Department of Labor
Forum on Ergonomics

George Mason University
Fairfax, VA

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this forum. My name is Tim Hammonds, and I am the President and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute. FMI is the national trade association representing the retail supermarket and food distribution industry. Our members include small, family-run neighborhood grocery stores as well as the large, publicly held grocery chains that operate in multiple states. We also represent a number of wholesale food distributors that service independent operators.

I would like to begin by saying that the ergonomics regulation published in the closing days of the prior administration and which the Congress rescinded was one of the most onerous, impractical regulations ever proposed by any regulatory agency. We are pleased that regulation is gone but we recognize that there are real concerns about ergonomic or repetitive stress injuries. We commend the Secretary for acting quickly to initiate these proceedings to identify realistic, practical approaches to reducing these injuries. This forum should prove quite valuable to efforts to find sensible solutions.

We have been asked to address three questions today. The first question is the fundamental one---what is an ergonomics injury? The fact that this question still needs to be asked is quite telling. As we have engaged in debate over whether there is a need for a federal regulation in this area, a lot of different terms have been tossed around---ergonomics, repetitive stress injuries, musculoskeletal disorders and on and on. The underlying presumption by many seems to be that any complaint of a tissue or joint ache or pain could be an "ergonomics injury." However, evidence shows that many such reports by workers cannot be linked to detectable tissue damage. When a symptom cannot be seen, it is difficult to know whether an actual "injury" has occurred. Clearly, the medical and scientific communities have not reached any consensus on just what an "ergonomics injury" is, and without a clear and understandable definition it is impossible to prescribe a cure.

The second question posed---how can OSHA, employers and employees determine whether an injury is work-related---is equally problematic. At this point the science is just not there to establish any clear formula for determining whether a so-called "ergonomics injury," which has not been conclusively defined, is related to a person’s work. It has been the experience of our member companies that when an employee reports pain or soreness, the employee’s supervisor must review the employee’s work practices or procedures, make an educated guess about whether the problem is work-related, then identify what may be the cause. What is important here is that each employee is a unique individual, with different physical and psychological characteristics and different habits on and off the job. What affects one person may not affect someone else doing essentially the same job. A manager cannot always tell why one cashier may report a sore elbow when the cashier at the next register, doing the same job, does not. The only way to effectively solve these problems is for employees and employers to work cooperatively to determine whether they think the issue is work-related, then find an appropriate solution. The solution itself is often arrived at through trial-and-error.

Our members work cooperatively every day with employees to solve problems. It is in the best interests of management and employees to do so. That is why, according to BLS data, our industry has cut workplace injuries by one-third over the past decade. Given the flexibility we have now, we will continue to reduce injuries. I would point out that when the previous proposed rule was rescinded, there was no diminution of effort to continue to reduce injury rates in our industry.

The third question posed by the agency is of course the most critical one: What can OSHA do to help reduce so-called ergonomic injuries? Given the current lack of consensus on just what an "ergonomic" injury is, the challenges faced in determining whether such an injury is actually work-related, and because every situation is unique and may require a unique solution, we don’t believe that it is currently possible or necessary to develop a federal regulation. No cookie-cutter federal regulation with command-and-control mandates is going to reduce injuries any faster than employers and employees working together in a cooperative spirit as our industry has already been doing. For the same reasons we don’t see the value in OSHA issuing broad general industry guidelines, even if they are not enforceable.

If OSHA starts with the premise that private industry (at least our industry) is making tremendous strides toward reducing injuries, I think you’ll find that there is a positive role the agency can play in promoting safer workplaces. For example, in the area of education I believe there is a void to be filled. Many companies have found innovative practices or workplace alterations that have helped reduce injuries. OSHA could play an important role by establishing an information and communication process by which these success stories may be shared with others. OSHA could establish industry-specific conferences or panel discussions to share ideas. We also believe OSHA would be much more effective by focusing its resources on voluntary consultations between the agency and industry, rather than on enforcement.

Over the past decade FMI has played a very pro-active role in promoting best practices and sharing ideas with our member companies about how to reduce workplace injures. In the early 1990’s we established an industry Ergonomics Task Force which has led our efforts. We hold an annual safety conference to allow our members to exchange ideas on how to further reduce worker injuries. We have developed scores of ergonomic manuals, videos, educational seminars and other resources. We also maintain e-share lists so safety professionals in our industry may exchange ideas. This is the type of voluntary educational program OSHA should pursue.

For those industries with high injury rates that do not have effective voluntary programs, the current General Duty Clause provides ample authority to get their attention and stimulate effective action. Creating a new single standard aimed primarily at industries without effective, successful voluntary programs, then applying that standard across all industries, would likely rollback the progress already made as employers struggle with compliance issues inappropriate to their own workers.

Food retailers are proud that our voluntary efforts have reduced workplace injuries in grocery stores by one-third over the past decade, a rate faster than even the projected effect of the rule proposed last year. We would be glad to cooperate with OSHA as it develops its efforts to educate and assist employers in addressing ergonomic injuries.

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to testify today.

- 30 -

Back to the Testimony Archive