Coalition Sues Washington State over Ergonomic Rules

An employers' group has filed a lawsuit in Washington to stop that state's ergonomics rule.

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A group called Washington Employers Concerned about Regulating Ergonomics filed a lawsuit Oct. 17 in Thurston County Superior Court in an effort to stop the state''s ergonomics rule. The rule was adopted in May 2000 with a phase-in period scheduled over several years.

The group claims the rule, issued by the Department of Labor and Industries, place a tremendous burden on employers while providing dubious benefits to workers.

"This is clearly a case of a state agency abusing its power and pushing through a rule based on political agendas," said Tom McCabe, president of the Building Industry Association of Washington.

The groups contesting the ergonomic rule claim their cost of implementation could be as much as $725 million a year. They are also challenging the effectiveness of the ergonomic techniques spelled out in the rules.

The rule requires employers to evaluate jobs to identify potential ergonomic risks such as awkward, heavy lifting or highly repetitive motion. Employers must reduce employee exposure when these jobs are hazardous. Employers also must provide basic ergonomics education for employees who work in or supervise "risky" jobs.

Initially, the rule will focus on larger employers (50 or more full-time equivalent workers) in the 12 industries having the highest risk of ergonomic injury. They include sawmills, nursing homes and several of the most hazardous building trades.

The new rule and implementation plan include:

  • A phase-in period of two to five years, depending on size and industry, that allows time for employers to prepare for compliance. The time also will allow employers and the Washington Department of Labor and Industry to gain experience by working together on voluntary demonstration projects. Phase-in for large high-risk employers begins in July 2002.
  • Financial incentives for employers who agree to participate in the voluntary demonstration projects. The financial incentives include workers'' compensation premium discounts.
  • Development of an extensive technical assistance program and training for employers, especially small businesses.
  • Creation of a blue-ribbon panel of independent experts who will review the agency''s technical assistance efforts. The panel will advise the Department of Labor and Industry whether employers understand the rule requirements before enforcement of rule requirements begin.

The state claims that the rule is necessary to protect workers from such injuries as back strain, tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. These injuries cost more than $411 million a year in medical treatment and lost wages alone, according to state workers'' compensation data.

The Department of Labor and Industry conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the rule before it was enacted. The state''s estimated benefit to employers from reducing ergonomic hazards is $340 million per year. The estimated cost of complying with the rule is $80.4 million per year.

"We''re very confident that the ergonomics rules will reduce workplace injuries and reduce employer costs," said the director of the Department of Labor and Industry, Gary Moore.

He said there are no plans to revise or rescind the regulations.

"Ergonomic injuries are a huge problem - a third of workers'' compensation claims - but we''ve found a unique solution that will assist employers and protect workers," Moore said.

by Sandy Smith

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