by Cara Gardner

When we think of workrelated injuries, images of industrial equipment, sharp blades or heavy materials may come to mind. But work-related injuries include a variety of problems, from chronic back problems to carpal tunnel syndrome caused by long hours of repetitive motion.

"There are 50,000 work-related injuries, costing over a billion dollars a year in Washington State," says Michael Silverstein, assistant director for industrial safety and health for Washington's Department of Labor and Industries (L & amp;I). Because of this, Washington State passed ergonomics rules, which require employers to educate workers about on-the-job safety and take steps to help prevent injuries. Ergonomics is the science of designing jobs so they are safe, and ergonomic rules have to do with the way employees' muscles and skeleton are used.

"The practice of ergonomics can prevent injuries," Silverstein says. "A lot of employers have found that ergonomics does work, and it improves safety."

The ergonomics rules were adopted in 2000 and will be enforced over the next three to five years, depending on the type of industry and the number of people employed. Employers are responsible for identifying hazardous jobs based on repetitive motions and following guidelines to abate those hazards.

But many Washington businesses, and the associations that represent them, aren't happy with the ergonomics rules. They say implementation is too costly and won't keep workers any safer.

"What it would involve is hiring a consultant and paying fees for them to tell us what to do," says Todd Weaver, president of Metals Fabrication Company, a local business that constructs steel skeletons for buildings. "This adds to our cost of doing business and we can't just add that price on for our customers."

Opponents say the ergonomics rules are vague, expensive and will hurt Washington business, so they're campaigning to do away with the rules via Initiative 841, which will be on the ballot this November.

Though Weaver says he doesn't know exactly how much it would cost him to implement the state's ergonomics rules, many businesses claim it would include the ongoing expense of paperwork and additional time off for employees.

"From what I've read, [L & amp;I] determines what we can afford," Weaver claims. "We could be open to very high costs."

Silverstein says that's not true. "The company does not have to do anything that's not feasible, and the employer gets to define that," Silverstein explains. According to the ergonomics rules, each employer has a number of options for fixing repetitive jobs.

"It might mean alternating and job rotation," Silverstein explains, "or moving positions. For someone involved in intensive keying, it may mean moving the keyboard to a different position. But let's say the employer does all the simple things, and the only thing left is to reduce work hours. The rule specifically says the employer does not have to do that. The rule allows people to work through it."

If a state inspector feels a job is particularly hazardous, then L & amp;I must prove that it's feasible for the employer to fix it.

"And, in a vast majority of cases, we're never going to do an inspection," Silverstein adds. "There are [roughly] 175,000 workplaces, and we do 7,400 inspections a year, so we're likely to come to one place every 30 to 40 years."

This isn't what paid promoters of I-841 are telling voters. In fact, some media have reported that paid signature gatherers misinformed voters, even claiming Seattle Mariners' catcher Dan Wilson wouldn't be able to play a whole game because of the ergonomics rules, which isn't true.

Opponents also complain that the ergonomics rules are difficult to understand. To that, Silverstein can only beg the employers to simply read them.

"With a little time to look through the rulebook, it's really fairly easy," Silverstein says. "We had an independent blue-ribbon panel review that specifically, and they reported back to the governor that the rule is 'remarkably free of beaurocratic jargon.' It's clear, and while it's specific, it also provides flexibility."

Still, supporters of I-841 believe that the ergonomics rules are bad for business -- despite the fact that they haven't even been enforced and most businesses don't yet know the benefits and disadvantages.

"If this was applied on a national basis, it would be a lot easier to deal with," Weaver, with Metals Fabrication, says. Washington and California are the only states with ergonomics laws. The federal government adopted an ergonomics law during the Clinton Administration, but that was overturned in 2001.

Though he is against ergonomics rules, Weaver is clear that safety in the workplace is good for business. "You're not going to keep good workers if you're not safe," he says. "The safety is the goal everyone's after, and to be a good business you have to balance both safety and cost."

Publication date: 10/16/03

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