Nation’s first ergonomics standard approved

Controversial plan faces legal challenges

The California Office of Administrative Law (OAL) has approved an ergonomics standard issued by the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, the first such workplace safety plan in the nation. However, the terse one-page document is a disappointment both to employers, who feel it is unwarranted, and to labor unions, which favor a broader, more proactive approach to combating repetitive-motion injuries. (See Hospital Employee Health, February 1997, pp. 18-20; March 1997, pp. 33-36.)

The standard, which covers all workplaces where 10 or more people are employed, is opposed by the California Healthcare Associa tion, which represents 456 hospitals. Association officials maintain that the standard was not supported by scientific research and will not reduce worker injuries.

Although approved, the standard still faces legal challenges from both organized labor and employer groups. In a surprise move last January, the OAL — California’s administrative oversight agency — rejected a proposed version of the standard as too vague.

The ergonomics standard is triggered when at least two workers performing identical tasks are diagnosed with repetitive motion injuries within 12 consecutive months. Once triggered, the standard mandates that employers establish and implement programs designed to minimize injuries. Programs must include work-site evaluations, exposure control, and employee training.

A major OAL objection was that the standard’s use of the word "identical" was unclear. The revised standard says two workers performing word processing or two workers loading goods would be among those considered to be performing identical tasks.

"We are pleased that the minor modifications the board has made now meet with the standard of clarity established by OAL," says John McLeod, executive officer of the standards board.

Passage of a standard had been required by workers’ compensation reform legislation adopted in 1993. The new rule is expected to go into effect this summer.