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January 5, 2000

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January 5, 2000 LETTERS o,*o OPINIONS COLUMNS READINGS : CROSSWORD HOROSCOPES N tO should be exclusive this newspaper, strive ss and the writer's signa- full name, address daytime telephone for verification will be verified to publication). selected for publica- may be edited for punctuation, and questions of taste or libel. letters to: Letters the Editor, The Times, P.O. Box Arlington, WA 98223. for letters is at 3 p.m. for publi- following edition. E-mail address: arltimes@premierl .net short -- some goodly strength or knowledge gained for yourselves. So, from day to day, and strength to strength, you shall build up indeed, by Art, by Thought, and by Just Will, an Ecclesia .... of which it shall not be said 'See what manner of stones are here,' but, 'See what manner of men.'" --JOHN RUSKIN Lectures on Art (1870) *In an earlier generation, many readers saved interesting or pertinent quotations and copied them In what was called a Commonplace Book. Ergonomics: Smarter, safer workplaces prevent injury by Gary Moore Director, Washington Labor and Industries Department of magine you're sitting at Safeco Field, waiting for the opening pitch at a Mariners game. The standing-room- only crowd has packed the stands. Now, visualize all those fans with aching wrists and injured backs. Fifty-thousand Washington workers -- the equivalent of an entire stadium crowd -- are hurt each year from what are called "ergonomic" injuries. These include sprains, strains, muscle tears and back problems caused by work-related tasks. The consequences of these injuries are serious at work and at home. A worker with numb hands can't firmly grip tools at work or a toothbrush at home. A worker in pain can't concentrate while operating a machine or a car. A worker with an injured back can't lift boxes at work or his children at home. Unlike machines, workers don't come with spare parts. And your job shouldn't rob you of your health. The staggering financial impact affects employers, too. Medical costs and wage- replacement benefits alone cost more than $340 million a year. Losses in productivity and quality drive employers' costs much higher. Sound medical science tells us many of these painful and expensive injuries never had to happen in the first place. There are effective ways to design jobs, select tools and modify work methods so workers can safely do their jobs. That's why the Department of Labor and Industries has proposed an ergonomics regulation to help prevent more injuries. Ergonomics means working smarter and safer, and protecting a worker's body from unnecessary wear and tear on the job. It means using a cart to move materials instead of carrying them and changing the height of a work surface to eliminate awk- ward posture. Employers have a responsibility to reduce workplace hazards instead of sim- ply responding if any injury occurs. We recognize that government has a responsibility, too. We need to make certain that employers have the time and tools they need to approach ergonomics in a deliberate, well-planned manner. That is what Washington's proposed ergonomics rule would do. Before writing the proposal, the Department of Labor and Industries worked with advisory committees that included representatives from business, labor and the medical community. Committee mem- bers helped define the elements of a work- able rule. The proposed rule commits L&I to work with "demonstration employers" to test compliance guides, best practices and inspection policies before enforcement begins. Employers will have three to six years to comply to allow time to make sure the implementation efforts are fair and effective. The core of the proposed rule begins when a business evaluates each job to see whether a job's requirements represent an ergonomic risk. We estimate that about 30 percent of businesses will have no ergonomically risky jobs. If so, they'll have to do nothing else to comply with this regu- lation. If a business has a job with potential risks, then the job will need to be evaluat- ed. Ergonomic awareness education will be presented to employees working in these jobs. If exposure to risk -- frequent lifting or repetitive motion, for example -- reaches a hazardous level, the employer must reduce the exposure to a non-hazardous level or to the extent feasible. Some employers already recognize the importance of protecting their workers. Under the proposed rule, these employers would be able to continue their effective ergonomics programs. We applaud Washington employers who have willingly embraced ergonomics. They know that smarter, safer workplaces prevent injury and protect employees from unnecessary pain and disability. Ergonomics also saves them money. Unfortunately, many businesses are not doing enough to protect workers from ergonomic hazards. Am ergono cs rule would provide these businesses with the guidelines they need and a requirement to take action to protect their workers. You are encouraged to add your voice to the public discussion of this important workplace safety and health issue. Labor and Industries will host public hearings across the state: Jan. 5, Seattle; Jan. 6, Everett; Jan. 10, Tacoma; Jan. 11, Vancouver; Jan. 12, Spokane; Jan. 13, Yakima; and Jan. 14, Tumwater. You can learn more about the proposal and the public hearings by visiting L&I's web site: or by calling 360-902-5523. You can submit written comments until 5 p.m., Feb. 14. The $340 million annual price tag that goes with these injuries is enormous. But we're talking about more than just dollars and cents. These 50,000 injured workers are real people -- people who are in pain, people unable to work, people with person- al lives damaged by the physical demands of their jobs. This rule is necessary to pre- vent these needless injuries. Government MSD regulations are a 'MESS' by Don C. Brunell President, Association of Washington Business sk most employers to tell you what "ergonomics" means and they'll say, "Ergo what?" Tell them ergonomics the science of "musculoskeletal disorders" (MSDs) and their eyes glaze over! Well, Washington's Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) and the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) tossed a cold bucket of water on employers recently, announcing sweeping proposed ergonomics regulations. Musculoskeletal disorders are injuries such as carpal tunnel s adrome, the painful tendon disorder thought to result from "repet- itive" stress -- doing the same motion day in and day out. But government regulators are assuming that each and every case of MSD is caused by something at work. That may not be the case. Workers spend eight or nine hours day on the job. They spend twice that much time each day away from the job -- at home, doing chores, playing sports, surfing the Web -- or, in some cases, just plain surfing! But both the new state and federal rules ignore the possibil- ity that a worker's injury was caused by some- thing outside the workplace. That's not fair, and it's not scientifically valid. Speaking of "scientifically valid" -- that's another problem with the proposed regula- tions. The "sdence" surround ergonomics is iffy, at best. For example, while the proposed regulation presume that carpal tunnel syn- drome (CTS) is always job-related, a 1998 study reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that a high percentage of CTS sufferers actually had a host of non-work related medical ailments that could have caused the CTS symptoms. Another example. You have probably seen those broad Velcro "back belts" workers use to prevent back strain when lifting heavy objects. For years, it was just common knowl- edge that back belts prevent back injuries. But in 1994, L&I officials admitted that "...little sci- entific evidence exists t9 support back belts as preventing injury." So, even the regulators admit they don't know exactly what causes MSD injuries -- or precisely how to prevent them -- but still, they want to make employers responsible for doing just that! It's like Alice in Wonderland -- noth- ing makes sense. The only sure thing about the proposed ergonomics regulations is that Washington employers will pay, The legal assumption that any MSD injury is automatically work-related means Washington employers will pay $340 million each year in workers compensation claims. Washington employers are doing some- thing about ergonomics. Public and private sector employers came together to form the "We Care Coalition" to bring some sense into what the government is proposing. They have volunteered to participate in pilot projects in jobs which have the greatest potential for musculoskeletal injuries. But that isn't good enough for the government regulators. In their zest to deal with the issue, they point the finger at employers and, in a typical bureaucratic response, introduce a whole new set of regulations on top of the mountain of red tape already strangling employers. L&I will conduct a series of public hear- ings on their new regulations across the state in January. The message ought to be sent loud and dear: "Get your science together before you make a rule, and find ways to partner with employers on pilot projects." It's the only thing that makes sense. Workers must wLn this battle 51 12/30/47; 12/16/99 A tOn :A 9 12/27199 Falls Everett .Stanwood Everett Granite Falls Slanwood Everett Marysville Arlington Everett by Rick Bender, President Washington State labor Council AFL-CIO war in the workplace is underway. The fight is between business inter- ests and workers who are at risk of painful and disabling injuries from their jobs. We know these injuries by the names such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis. These musculo-skeletal disorders are the fastest growing category of workplace injury in the nation. The injuries can be prevented, often by simple ac[justments. But a newly formed busi- ness coalition wants to avoid the cost, so it is launching an assault on the new "ergonomics" rule issued by the Washington State Department of Labor and industries on November 15. Ergonomics means designing work to avoid musculo-skeletal injury. Anyone who has shopped in a grocery store in the last five years probably noticed that many of the checkers are wearing wrist braces. Some have had to have painful surgery. Others are avoiding surgery but suf- feting excrudating nerve damage. The cause is obvious: the checkout counter, and the process of scanning bar codes, in many news- rooms around the country, reporters who use computer keyboards for intensive writing jobs have suffered a similar injury. It doesn't have to be this way. Checkout counters and scan- ners can be changed. Keyboards and desks can be changed. But change does have a cost, and it's a cost business wants to avoid. That's why a coalition of business organizations has launched a campaign to oppose any regulation of ergonomics. The coalition includes a formi- dable group of business interests, including newspaper publishers and grocery chains. But ergonomic injuries is also a growing cost to all of us. Every workday, another 185 workers file a new claim for an ergonomics injury. These injuries now account for one- third of our workers' compensation claims and nearly one-half of the costs of workplace injuries and illnesses. The National Academy of Sciences estimates the national cost of ergonomics-related injuries to cost up to $20 billion a year. In Washington state, these kinds of injuries cause the loss of two and a half mil- lion workdays a year. If you add up the lost wages and lost productivity this represents, the true costs of these injuries in our state alone adds up to well over a billion dollars a year. But the real cost is the pain. Ergonomic injuries damage the soft tissue, nerves, ten- dons, ligaments, joints and spinal discs. They prevent you from picking up your kids or grandkids. They prevent you from having a good nights' sleep. They prevent you from being able to perform daily activities -- from buttoning your shirt to opening a jar. Organized labor believes it is past time that the Washington State Department of Labor and industries proposed rule on ergonomics be adopted. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has also proposed a new rule, and although we prefer a state-level standard, we will support a federal approach if the state standard is blocked. Throughout much of the month of January, the Department has scheduled hearings to listen to workers, employers and the medical experts who can testify first hand about the issue. I have every confidence that the fears of the employer-community can be put to rest after these hearings. The good news is that many of these injuries can be eliminated or avoided by sim- ple changes in work practices, tools and train- ing. Oftentimes a simple change in the height of a workstation is the solution. It doesn't take rocket science. But it does take change, and a willingness to put workers' safety and health ahead of short term expenses. The Department estimates that the proposed rule might cost $77 million a year, but to do noth- ing costs much more -- $341 million in insur- ance claims for ergonomic injuries. After 10 years of voluntary compliance, businesses that have adopted programs to reduce ergonomics injuries have reported fewer injuries and improved productivity. Unfortunately, only a minority of businesses have undertaken change voluntarily, even after a decade of encouragement. That's why we support the new set of rules set forth by the Department of Labor and industries. While we think the timetable for implementing these rules is too slow, giv- hag employers six full years to adapt, they are the first step towards reducing unnecessary workplace ergonomics injuries. For too many years, the pain and suffering of unnecessary - injury has been borne by workers. It Is past time to take this long-delayed positive step to improve the health, safety and work lives of all workers.