The best of intentions can often lead to the worst results – this can be particularly true in a workplace where meat and poultry processing is the focus of an operation. Employers may take steps to improve the well-being and productivity of their employees, only to have such initiatives backfire and lead to injuries, workers’ compensation claims and lawsuits.

Technology can be problematic, especially when it comes to the areas of ergonomic issues and add-on (or aftermarket) equipment. If used incorrectly, this type of equipment can lead to sprains, strains or even more serious injuries, which could put companies in violation of the law. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers must provide a workspace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.”

Add-on liability

When used correctly, “add-on” equipment can lessen the risk of injuries and save employees a great deal of time. But add-ons may be prone to malfunctioning or used incorrectly by employees, which can lead to down-time or injuries.

To minimize the dangers of poor ergonomics and add-on equipment, employers need to identify potential risks and take steps to eliminate them. Such actions will keep them in regulatory compliance by improving workplace safety, increase employee productivity and help reduce the chances of a lawsuit filed by employees injured on the job. These steps include:
• Take an inventory of the equipment in use – Employers and managers need to know what equipment is being used in each department. Once an inventory is taken, the equipment can be analyzed to determine if it is appropriate, well-maintained and whether it is even necessary.

• Ensure employees are using the right equipment – Efficiency is important, but so is safety. A contractor may use a set of unsuitable pliers rather than make a trip to the truck for the right wrench. This is not a good idea.

• Do not allow employees to modify equipment – Employees may attempt to “improve” their workspaces on their own. This may increase the risk of injuries, which can leave employers open to liability claims. Or, it could lead to mechanical failures, which can be very expensive.

• Educate employees and managers to recognize and report problems – Employers should analyze their OSHA 300 logs to see if there are particular areas where employees are being injured and how they can minimize or prevent additional injuries. If a department has recently purchased new office chairs, and more people are now complaining about sore backs and stiff necks, it’s time to reconsider office furniture.

• Know the laws – Employers need to understand all the relevant laws that apply to each of their worksites and respond to those laws appropriately. This may best be managed through a joint effort by human resources, inhouse counsel and law firm attorneys.

The right equipment and technology can boost employee productivity and make jobs easier. The wrong equipment – or the right equipment used incorrectly – can cause injuries, strains and lead to lost work hours and potential lawsuits. Employers must ensure they provide appropriate and well-maintained equipment. In the long run, such equipment will more than pay for itself in healthy and satisfied employees. •

Richard Alaniz is senior partner at Alaniz and Schraeder, a national labor and employment firm based in Houston.