Ergonomics: What's Next for the State of Washington?

Article excerpt

Big bucks were spent to repeal Washington's ergonomics standard. Will workers and employers end up paying a high price in terms of injuries and costs?

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The price tag of the campaign was steep--estimated at $1.5 million--but worth it, said supporters. In the weeks before the November 2003 election, television ads and yard signs urged passage of Initiative 841 to repeal Washington's ergonomics standard, scheduled for enforcement in 2005.

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The opposition to Initiative 841--mostly labor unions and the state government--was outspent 3 to 1. In fact, state officials are prohibited by law from engaging in a political campaign, so employees of Washington's Department of Labor and Industries (L & I) could not speak out for the ergonomic standard or against Initiative 841 in an official capacity.

Despite low voter turnout, or perhaps because of it, Initiative 841 passed. Mike Wynn, CPE, a vice president at Humantech, a workplace ergonomics consulting firm that does business in Washington, says he was surprised. "The protections for individuals are such that I thought workers would support it."

David Groves, spokesperson for the Washington State Labor Council AFL-CIO, agrees, noting, "The standard contained a lot of concessions to business; survived three years of legislative attempts to repeal, delay and eviscerate it; and survived a court challenge. It is counterintuitive for voters--workers--to repeal a workplace safety rule, so we thought [Initiative 841] faced an uphill battle. Obviously, we were wrong."

Ultimately, says Groves, voters believed ads claiming the standard was a "job-killer." Wynn thinks even employers who support the idea of good ergonomics were scared off by the amount of documentation required of them by the standard. "Let's face it. If there was an OSHA program for quality control, with all the paperwork and recordkeeping OSHA requires, would employers have time to improve quality?" Wynn asks.

Was the Standard Too Tough?

Washington's ergonomics rule focused on preventing injuries. Employers with "caution zone jobs," where an employee's typical work included one or more of several risk factors--awkward postures, high hand force, frequent lifting, highly repetitive motion, repeated impact and moderate to high vibration--were covered under the standard. Employees could perform jobs with identified risk factors for four hours a day total, and employers were required to reduce hazards to a degree that was "technically and economically feasible."

Erin Shannon, public relations director of the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), reveals, "Businesses didn't trust L & I to administer the regulation. Who determines what is 'technically and economically feasible?' L & I, or the employer?" Plus, referring to the general duty clause, she adds, "Worker safety laws already allow the state to ding employers for ergonomic violations in the workplace."

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Business owners told BIAW, which helped fund the repeal effort, that they were worried about the impact the standard would have on their costs, says Shannon. The state estimated the cost of compliance for employers at $80 million per year. Opponents' cost estimates ranged from over $300 million to more than $700 million.

Employers with workers performing caution zone jobs were threatening to hire part-time work forces if the standard was enforced. Which in turn meant no employer-paid health benefits for employees. "Employers told us the only way to be certain they were complying with the standard was to take workers off the job after four hours," Shannon reveals.

If employers adopted that plan of action, then employees suffered twice: fewer work hours and no benefits. Worse yet, some employers threatened to leave the state entirely.

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A slaughterhouse visited by L & I was told it could be cited in the future under the then-pending ergonomics standard if changes weren't made to employee job tasks and work organization. …