Washington Proposes Ergonomics Standard

Nov. 18, 1999
Washington may become the second state in the nation with an ergonomics standard after the Department of Labor and Industries released its proposal Nov. 15.

An ergonomics standard proposed in Washington is meant to help the state's employers reduce musculoskeletal disorders that cripple or injure more than 50,000 workers every year, the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) said in releasing the plan Nov. 15. It would be the country's second state ergonomics rule.

Washington's proposed standard would protect workers from the primary cause of workplace injury and illness, said Gary Moore, director of L&I. The rule is aimed at preventing work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) such as back strains, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

The state has up to six months from the time the proposed standard is published in the Washington State Register to put the rule into effect. With a publish date of Dec. 1, that would put the standard's adoption date at no later than June 1.

Washington would join California as the only two states with an ergonomics standard. The rule is needed, Moore said, because employers may be willing to protect their employees from unnecessary injuries, but some will not do it voluntarily.

"We have the ability and the tools to stop this needless pain and suffering," he said. "This is the right thing to do, and now is the time to do it."

Now is not the time to implement an ergonomics standard, said P.J. Edington, executive director of the Center for Office Technology in Alexandria, Va. Washington's proposal will place unnecessary burdens on employers while not guaranteeing safer workplaces, Edington contends.

The proposal initially would focus on employers with 50 or more employees in high-risk industries such as residential construction, roofers, nursing homes and sawmills. The rule would:

  1. Provide a quick way for employers to know if they are covered.
  2. Require covered employers to meet an employee education requirement and identify WMSD hazards. If hazards exist, the employer must reduce them.
  3. Show covered employers when they must comply with this rule. An employer's type of business and number of employees determine how much time is permitted for compliance (three to six years for fixing WMSD hazards).

Employers with "caution zone jobs" would be covered by the standard. These types of jobs occur where an employee's typical work includes any of several physical risk factors: awkward postures; high hand force; highly repetitive motion; repeated impact; heavy, frequent and awkward lifting; or moderate to high vibration. Any job with one of these risk factors must be evaluated and, if determined to be hazardous, fixed "to the degree feasible."

"Employers will be forced to conduct time-consuming and detailed job analysis for jobs that the state has decided are 'caution zone jobs,' even if there has never been an injury in that job," Edington said. "The rule recognizes that this analysis will be difficult and technical; in other words, this is not a job for rookies. Most companies will need to hire someone specially trained to do this work."

Medical management is one issue not included in Washington's proposal that is expected to be part of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's proposed ergonomics standard, due for release in November. An employer would not violate the state standard solely because a worker develops a WMSD or related symptom.

Moore lists the annual cost for the standard at $340 million. While calling the price tag "enormous," he said, "We are talking about more than dollars and cents. These are real people workers who are in pain, people unable to work, people with personal lives damaged by the physical demands of their jobs."

Fourteen public hearings will be held across the state in January. The hearings and submitted comments will be used to determine the standard's final form. L&I will work with a group of demonstration employers to test and improve guidelines, best practices and inspection policies and procedures as they are developed.

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