Washington voters reject ergonomics rule

Vote may impact other ergo efforts

In an action that may have national repercussions, voters in Washington state have rescinded the only preventive ergonomics rule in the country. Ballot Initiative 841 passed by a vote of 54% to 46%, eliminating the ergonomics rule and preventing state Department of Labor and Industries from developing another one until the federal government enacts a regulation. The department now will focus on consultation and education, says public affairs manager Steve Pierce.

"If people had a more honest understanding of what that was about, there’s no way it would have [passed]," says Bill Borwegen, MPH, health and safety director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Washington, DC. "It’s a very sad day for people who are concerned about employee health."

A Washington business coalition ran a radio and television campaign that asserted that the ergo-nomics rule would kill jobs in the state. "The costs of doing business are very high in Washington compared to a lot of other places in the country," says Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Businesses (AWB), the state’s chamber of commerce. "We looked at the jobs that would not be created and jobs that would be eliminated. People could just not afford to have any more regulations put on them." Although it was opposed to the rules, which it considered ambiguous, the AWB supports ergonomics, he points out. In fact, the AWB has announced an ergonomics education effort, including an ergonomics workshop.

Worker advocates had hoped the Washington ergonomics rule would be a springboard for similar actions in other states. California has an ergonomics rule that is triggered after at least two workers report repetitive motion injury within a 12-month period. Unions there have tried unsuccessfully to revise the standard to make it stronger. Washington’s rule required businesses to identify "caution zone jobs" that put workers at risk and to reduce the hazards of musculoskeletal disorder injuries. The rule was to become effective on a staggered timeline, with the more hazardous industries, such as nursing homes, taking priority. Hospitals were required to begin assessing job hazards by July 1, 2003, and to begin reducing those hazards by July 1, 2004.

Gov. Gary Locke delayed enforcement for two years based on recommendations from a Blue Ribbon Panel on Ergonomics. But business coalitions continued to fight the rule in the legislature, the courts, and the ballot box.

"They bombarded people with what we considered to be lies about the rule," says David Groves, spokesman for the Washington state labor council, an umbrella organization for unions and the state federation of AFL-CIO.

"They said the rule was certain to kill jobs in the state, to play upon people’s economic insecurity. They said the rule will limit some people’s jobs to four hours a day, which isn’t true. They also said that children would lose health care benefits. I guess the rationale is that if you went from full time to part time, you’d lose health care insurance. It was a ridiculous claim."

Ergonomic hazards still can be addressed through the "general duty clause" of the Occu-pational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to maintain a workplace free of serious, recognized hazards. While issuing some ergonomic citations, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is focused primarily on voluntary guidelines and educational efforts related to ergonomics. Congress rescinded OSHA’s ergonomics rule in 2001.

"Whether we’re going to use that [enforcement clause] is too early to say," Pierce adds. "We have a lot to sort out [with the passage of the initiative]. He notes that Washington has about 50,000 work-related musculoskeletal injuries per year.

Meanwhile, unions plan to continue other efforts to address ergonomic hazards. The debate over Initiative 841 brought ergonomics into the spotlight and provided an opportunity to education workers about the hazards, Groves says.