You have probably seen kinesiology tape, also known as KT Tape or Kinesio Tape: those bright, neon-colored tape strips worn by runners, cyclists, athletes, triathletes, and folks at the gym.

In a December 12 letter of interpretation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced that kinesiology tape “is considered medical treatment for OSHA recordkeeping purposes.” OSHA consulted with the physicians in its Office of Occupational Medicine, who claimed “that kinesiology taping is designed to relieve pain through physical and neurological mechanisms. The lifting action of the tape purportedly relieves pressure on pain receptors directly under the skin, allowing for relief from acute injuries.”

KT Tape has been around since the 1970s. But the product first gained widespread popularity when television viewers saw a handful of Olympic athletes wearing them in Beijing in 2008, including Kerri Walsh, the professional beach volleyball player. Four years later, by the 2012 Summer Olympics Games in London, KT Tape was everywhere. Athletes claimed the tape worked miracles on aches and sore muscles, improving circulation, preventing injury, and enhancing performance.

Doctors and researchers, on the other hand, say there is no clinically significant evidence to support claims that KT Tape can do any of these things. Studies have been inconclusive. Some experts suggest that the tape may create a placebo effect, doing little beyond boosting an athlete’s confidence.

The lack of clinical evidence did not stop OSHA from declaring the use of KT Tape to be medical treatment for recordkeeping purposes. In other words, if an employee digs through a company first aid kit and grabs KT Tape to treat an ache or pain instead of aspirin, for example, it can create an OSHA-recordable event for his or her employer.

So why would OSHA determine that KT Tape constitutes medical treatment, without solid evidence that the product actually works? The agency is obsessed with musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) for years, claiming that they constitute up to one-third of all worker injuries. OSHA unsuccessfully tried to promulgate an ergonomics standard in 1990s, even going so far as to issue a final rule that was quashed by Congress in 2001. Not long ago the agency attempted to include an MSD checkbox on the OSHA 300 form. Adding thousands of “KT Tape incidents” to OSHA 300 logs as injuries would only bolster OSHA’s case for re-introducing an ergonomics standard.

OSHA’s letter of interpretation presents a “gotcha” compliance trap for employers. Prior to the agency’s interpretation, few would have suspected that KT Tape use would be considered medical treatment. The likely reaction from employers will be to remove KT tape from company first aid kits and prohibit employees from applying KT Tape without approval from a physician. Of course this will be difficult for employers to enforce. KT Tape is widely available commercially, and active-lifestyle employees who love the product can and will use the product regardless.

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