ST. LOUIS -- Industry group Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va., is at odds with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over a proposed ergonomic rule aimed at reducing work-related musculoskeletal disorders claiming that compliance would be so costly that some warehouses could be forced to close.
The battle over the proposed regulation heated up at the Food Industry Productivity Convention and Exposition held here Oct. 31 through Nov. 3. The show is sponsored by FDI.
The proposal could declare some or all jobs in the distribution center hazardous, forcing changes to warehouse systems and processes.
The two sides are far apart in their estimates of costs for implementing changes to comply with the proposed rules.
During a session at the show, Charles N. Jeffress, assistant secretary of labor for the OSHA, said the cost of compliance for the wholesaler and food-service industry would be about $4.5 billion.
He added that the proposed rule could benefit the wholesaler and food-service industry to the tune of about $9 billion, some of which would come in the form of increased productivity, and reduced WMSD claims and pay outs.
Jeffress said that the OSHA's cost estimate for regulation compliance, which has increased in recent months, was based on information provided by professionals in the wholesaler and food-service industry.
During another session at the show, FDI's president John R. Block shot back, calling the proposal "ridiculous and unnecessary," and said it would cost food distributors billions of dollars with little benefit in return. "We don't disagree with the idea that the workplace must be safe. We invest in new equipment, policies and procedures. But this proposal is far beyond what is reasonable."
FDI contends that the proposed ergonomic rule could actually cost the wholesaler and food-service distributors up to an initial $26 billion to comply with and an additional $6 billion annually to stay in compliance, according to a study from Prime Consulting Group Inc., Bannockburn, Ill.
FDI contracted Prime Consulting Group to perform an independent analysis of the potential effect on the industry of the OSHA's proposed ergonomic rule.
A day after the OSHA seminar, FDI responded strongly to the OSHA's rule proposal at a news conference, also held here, and said that the OSHA's cost calculations were too low. According to Dan Raftery, president of Prime Consulting Group, if the OSHA ruled that the occupation of order selector was considered hazardous, the cost to bring a single distribution center into compliance could run about $6.5 million.
If all positions in a distribution center were labeled hazardous, the cost of compliance per DC could rise dramatically to $26.5 million, according to the study's findings.
The consulting company's study also claims that rule compliance could be so cost-prohibitive that some distribution centers would have to be closed down.
Prime Consulting's study was developed with the aid of distribution, ergonomics and OSHA compliance experts and an advisory committee from FDI.
Despite the plethora of improved technologies employed by the supermarket industry to provide an ergonomically friendly work environment for warehouse tasks such as order selection and forklift operation, WMSD injury is an ever-present problem.
Some of the topics that might be covered under the potential rule include management leadership and employee participation, hazard awareness and employee training, medical management, job hazard analysis, hazard prevention and control, program evaluation and documentation.
"It's clear that these programs improve morale and increase productivity," Jeffress told the conference attendees.
One OSHA seminar attendee, challenging the OSHA's figures, said that the reduced work pace required to keep the warehouse ergonomically compliant would actually lead to a reduction in productivity and efficiency.
Jeffress said that the OSHA is challenging the industry to work with it to improve the rule so that it is acceptable to the wholesaler and food-service industry.
There are several public hearings scheduled to launch in February of 2000 for food-industry professionals to speak their minds and provide input on the proposed rule.
"If what we are proposing makes it more difficult for you to work, tell us," Jeffress said, noting that it could take anywhere from one year to eight years for a rule to become final.
"I'm looking toward the day when every worker goes home whole and healthy," Jeffress told attendees.