Voters’ choice: Does ergo save workers or kill jobs?

Ballot initiative could repeal Washington rule

Once again, a controversial ergonomics rule has come under fire. But this time, voters in Washington state will be the ones to decide whether to keep the rule or repeal it. The outcome of Initiative 841 on the Nov. 4 ballot could have implications for ergonomics efforts across the nation.

"It would set us back," says Bill Borwegen, MHP, health and safety director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is hoping to strengthen the California ergonomics regulation, the only other one in the country.

Washington state’s rule requires businesses to identify "caution zone jobs" that put workers at risk and to reduce the hazards of musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) injuries.

The rule becomes effective on a staggered timeline, with the more hazardous industries, such as nursing homes, the first that must comply. Hospitals were required to begin assessing job hazards by July 1, 2003, and to begin reducing those hazards by July 1, 2004.

Concerns about the costs and burden of the rule arose as soon as it was adopted by the Washington Department of Labor and Industries in 2000. Based on the advice of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Ergonomics, which was appointed to consider the feasibility and impact of the rule, Gov. Gary Locke delayed enforcement for two years. For that period, employers will not be fined if they are not in compliance. (For more information on the Washington rule, see Hospital Employee Health, July 2002, p. 78.)

Yet Washington business leaders want the rule quashed altogether. The Washington State Hospital Association has remained neutral and has not endorsed the initiative.

"Every business in the state must follow this one-size-fits-all ergonomics rule," says Erin Shannon, public relations director for the Building Industry Association of Washington in Olympia. "Washington’s rule is actually more restrictive than the rule that was overturned by Congress."

The business coalition tried but failed to get support from the state legislation to repeal the rule, or to make compliance voluntary. A superior court judge upheld the process of adopting the rule. As of press time, the state Supreme Court had not ruled on arguments that the rule was adopted improperly.

Meanwhile, the business coalition gathered 260,000 signatures to place an initiative on the ballot and began to campaign for repeal of the rule. "You have to let the voters have the final say," Shannon says.

Their slogan: Ergonomics is a job killer. The business coalition asserts that the rule will discourage businesses from coming to Washington. They also say it will unnecessarily restrict workers from being able to fulfill their job tasks by limiting the amount of time they can do "hazardous" activities.

Rule will save more $ than it costs

The Department of Labor & Industries is vigorously defending its rule, asserting that it saves employers money in reduced workers’ compensation and medical costs and other indirect expenses. In fact, the agency estimates that the rule will cost employers $80.4 million annually, while it will prevent 40% of MSD injuries, saving about $340.7 million annually.

Before creating the rule, it surveyed Washington employers and found that 40% knew of MSD hazards in their workplaces but had not used ergonomics interventions to reduce them.

"The rule allows the employer choices for meeting the requirement to reduce employee exposure below hazardous levels or to the degree economically and technologically feasible," the department said in a written response to criticisms. "It does not dictate the methods employers must use to meet the requirement for hazard reduction."

Yet even that flexibility has been criticized. "How are businesses supposed to know whether or not they’re meeting that vague standard?" Shannon asks.

Labor unions are mobilizing to defeat the initiative, calling it misleading and cynical.

"What they don’t want to talk about is job safety," says David Groves, spokesman for the Washington State Labor Council in Seattle. "Their pollsters have told them that’s a losing position, that people won’t vote to repeal job safety. They’re cynically taking advantage of a weak economy and everybody’s fears about losing their job and suggesting that passing this initiative will somehow maintain jobs."

Many employers began implementing ergonomics programs voluntarily, or in response to the rule, Groves says. "But there continue to be some employers and some special interest lobbying groups that are just ideologically opposed to the government forcing them to do anything. Those are the people financing this initiative," he says.

If Initiative 841 passes, the state will be prohibited from creating an ergonomics rule until there is a federal standard. Congress repealed the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s ergonomics rule in 2001. The agency now relies on a "comprehensive approach" that involves voluntary compliance and limited enforcement through the General Duty clause of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act that requires employers to maintain a workplace free of known, serious hazards.

(Editor’s note: For a full description of the Washing-ton ergonomics rule and related resource information, go to the Washington Labor & Industries web site: www.lni.wa.gov/wisha/ergo/default.htm.)