18 May 18

PARTY CRASHERS // 1992-1994

Party Crashers

All year long we’re celebrating the moments that got us to this great spot: 35 years of Making the Workplace a Betterplace. It’s a tribute to our history and the big part you’ve played in it. So join us every month for a new tale, a quirky giveaway, and a fresh playlist of tasty tunes … ‘cuz there ain’t no party like an Ergodyne party, and this one’s gonna go down in the books, kids.

“The weightlifter’s best friend has busted out of the gym and into the workplace,” read a special to the November 2, 1993 edition of the Los Angeles Times. The piece focused on the trend of “those suspendered, Velcro-and-elastic midriff girdles” attempting to curb the perennial number-one workplace injury in the universe*.

*Well, North America for sure. But probably the universe.

And at the leading edge of that trend was Ergodyne. By 1991, Tom Votel had taken the old man’s side gig and turned it into one of INC.’s Top 500 Fastest Growing Small Companies in the country. His dogged pursuit of distributorship in the industrial supply sector was paying off. The back support originally devised by his dad had caught on in a big way. Other manufacturers were taking note.

Nationally, an estimated 5 million back belts were being sold in the early 90s.

That same 1993 Times article would quote Paula Newman, a vice president at Ergodyne during that time: “Customers would see [Home Depot employees] wearing them [Ergodyne back supports] and offer to buy them right off their backs for a hundred dollars.”

Yes, indeed. We had ourselves a certified belt boom.
Ergodyne Back Supports

And then…

Abrupt record scratch. Party goes silent. Cut to Dr. Tom Votel, Sr. recalling in a 2008 interview:

“Obviously, when a regulatory agency says your product is not good, that puts you in a very difficult position for a couple of years.”

Wait. What? But wasn’t– wasn’t everything going so well like three or four sentences ago?

Well, yes. But this is a blog post, not Tolstoy. Keep up!

“We provided back supports for the Coca-Cola bottling plant on St. Paul’s Westside,” the elder Votel continued. “OSHA had told them they had to make an engineering change to the plant (to reduce injuries)…but the managers at the plant had found by introducing our back support, they were able to reduce the incidences of injury at the plant.”

“Certain agencies seemed to think that was a threat.”

Did they ever.

Unhappy with industry preference of back supports over industrial engineering changes, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), struck with a 1-2 blow. First, a report written by a group of NIOSH staffers calling themselves the Back Belt Working Group. In that report (Workplace Use of Back Belts: Review and Recommendations) the group concluded that they did “not recommend the use of back belts among uninjured workers, and does not consider back belts to be personal protective equipment.”

NIOSH followed that body blow with an uppercut to the chin, a white paper that not only acted to further discredit preventative claims but also suggested that back supports could actually lead to injury. Manufacturers, including Ergodyne where dumbfounded.

Many of them didn’t disagree with NIOSH’s call for more research. They understood the need for longer-term statistical analysis. So how, with that lack of data, could they come to such a definitive conclusion themselves?

“It was an outrageous thing that they did and the science did not support their position,” said Votel. “I knew that we were going to have a real problem with that, and we started to see a really precipitous decline in sales.”

“So I decided to fight.”

{fade up Rocky theme song}