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Changing the Ergonomic Furniture Rules?

November 4, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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LEE HOCHBERG: These drywall installers building a house near Olympia, Washington, do some heavy lifting. Each board is 90 pounds. And they perform many repetitive, awkward, gripping motions– reaching up and down to drive screws and nails into the walls, jobs that can leave them sore at day’s end. Washington is the only state in the nation with rules designed to prevent musculoskeletal, or ergonomic, injuries.

The rules have been praised by health and labor experts nationwide for preventing workplace injuries. They’ve even been copied and adopted by the U.S. Navy. But business leaders have twice tried to overturn the rules in court, and again in the state legislature. When those approaches failed, they sponsored Initiative 841 to eliminate the rules.

SPOKESMAN: Businesses will avoid the millions it costs to comply by leaving Washington. The rule puts people out of work.

LEE HOCHBERG: Supporters of initiative 841 have linked the workplace rules to a sagging economy. Campaign spokeswoman Erin Shannon:

ERIN SHANNON: We’ve got businesses that don’t want to locate to this state, we’ve got businesses that are leaving this state, we’re the third highest in unemployment, and we’re doing everything we can to drive businesses away.

SPOKESPERSON: Initiative 841 would repeal common sense protection.

SPOKESPERSON: The opposing campaign to save the ergonomic rules is led by physicians, nurses, and labor leaders, who say the rules prevent thousands of injuries.

KAREN KEISER, Washington State Labor Council: We do not think that it will cost any jobs. In fact, we think it will save jobs because it will save thousands and thousands of dollars in unnecessary cost now that are going to these injuries.

LEE HOCHBERG: The Washington State Labor Council’s Karen Keiser notes the federal ergonomics rule was repealed by President Bush. She says discarding Washington’s rule would be a follow-up blow to worker safety.

KAREN KEISER: We see it as blood in the water, that they’re trying to rip out this most progressive workplace standard in the nation, and if they can do it here, they can do it anywhere. And there won’t be another ergonomics rule anywhere if this one goes down, you can bet on that.

LEE HOCHBERG: The Washington rule requires businesses to try to fix jobs in which employees spend a cumulative two to four hours per day in any of 14 hazardous positions — like this one where a worker has to hold his hands above his head much of the time; or this one, where a worker keeps her back or neck bent more than 45 degrees. The state’s director of health programs, Dr. Michael Silverstein, says bad ergonomics cause 50,000 workplace injuries per year in Washington State.

DR. MICHAEL SILVERSTEIN: Carpal tunnel syndrome, low- back injuries, tendonitis, shoulder problems have been the single largest unregulated, uncontrolled safety and health hazard in the country today. We’re talking about the kinds of problems that destroy workers lives.

LEE HOCHBERG: Silverstein says the rule only requires employees to do what’s “technologically and economically feasible.” The state points to the experience of Tacoma’s P.W. Pipe Company, a workplace of 65 that manufactures plastic pipe. Ergonomic injuries were commonplace there until managers reconfigured hazardous work sites. Health coordinator Swannie Swanson:

SWANNIE SWANSON: Shoulder strains, back strains, pulled muscles, sore neck. And then now, we have so few, we might have a pulled muscle maybe once every two or three months.

LEE HOCHBERG: Swanson showed us some fixes the company made. It installed this device that rotates large pipes so that their wide ends are stacked alternately side-to-side for shipping. It saves workers an ergonomically hazardous above- the-shoulders spin movement. Crucial functions across the plant have been moved from the floor to an easier-to-access waist level to minimize bending. And employee Dusty Hughes, who mixes powders to make pipe compound, is using a scoop with a new handle. It’s ended the wrist cramps that threatened to sideline him from work.

DUSTY HUGHES: I didn’t understand what was causing the pain, and after we had studied some of the ergonomics I realized that it was my gripping. You’re having to grip pretty hard. So we’ve come up with this solution which allows me to have my hand in this position, and I can almost not grip it. I’m barely holding it right now. It makes it so comfortable.

SPOKESMAN: The end cost was $45 for the attachment. So it was just minimum in cost, but we know it’s definitely going to save us from having an injury.

LEE HOCHBERG: PW Pipe says it invested $675,000 on its ergonomic improvements, and has saved more than $75,000 a year in reduced health care and disability payments. But the ergonomic rule has been greeted warily at many Washington grocery stores, where lots of changes may be needed.

The state says grocery workers suffer more than 2,000 ergonomic injuries in Washington every year. Some grocers have installed check stands where customers unload groceries themselves. That saves checkers the repeated lifting of items from carts. And new price scanners scan at a better angle, saving checkers repeated awkward twists of the wrist. At the Bayview Thriftway in Olympia, grocer Kevin Stormans says he spent $7,300 to install new bulk-food dispensers that can be loaded at chest level. But he says meeting all of the state’s requirements could put him out of business.

KEVIN STORMANS: There’s no way. We don’t make enough money to satisfy that. You can’t just say, “well, let’s have everybody go change scanners. Let’s go have them spend a lot of money ripping out good scanners and putting these in because they’re better.” I mean, there’s just not the money there.

LEE HOCHBERG: There’s been contentious debate over the real cost to business of Washington’s rule. The state estimates it at about $70 million a year, which it says will be made up for by a reduction in the amount industry pays in injury-related medical costs and lost wages. Business claims the rule will cost it ten times what the state says. Washington voters are deciding on the measure today.