Ergonomics: An issue whose time is still coming

The fight for ergonomic protection for workers in Washington state experienced a tragic setback when anti-labor, anti-worker Proposition I–841 passed in this month’s elections. The state had been leading the nation in attempting to protect its workers from the ravages of repetitive motion disease since 2000, when the very first action of the Bush administration upon taking office was to repeal the tough ergonomics standards promulgated in response to the demands of workers and unions during the Clinton administration.

Washington state adopted its ergonomics rule in May 2000 and was to start enforcing it at large companies last July. The rules required employers to identify all jobs that pose ergonomic hazards and then to take all possible steps to reduce or eliminate those hazards. Every year in Washington, more than 50,000 people suffer work-related musculoskeletal injuries such as carpal-tunnel syndrome, shoulder tendonitis and back strain, according to state records. Such injuries account for an estimated 40 percent of all workers’ compensation costs.

In response to howls of protest from businesses, however, Gov. Gary Locke ordered a two-year delay in the implementation of the new rule. That meant the inspections and enforcement for large companies were not to begin until July 2005, and most small employers had until 2008 to comply. Locke’s action didn’t satisfy the state’s employers; it emboldened them. They put a well-financed referendum on the 2003 ballot to kill the new safety and health regulation. Stooping to a new low, they named the anti-worker proposition “Workers Against Job-Killing Rules.”

Corporate interests, lead by the Boeing airplane manufacturing company, pulled out all stops to pass I-841, employing high-powered “Madison Avenue” advertisers to play on the weak economy of the region. Business leaders said the ergonomics rule would cost them more than $725 million a year. Of course, the problems of the region are not the fault of the workers who face this disabling workplace hazard. But the out-financed labor and people’s movement was unable to show the full impact of doing away with the ergonomic legislation, and the proposition passed 53 to 47 percent.

Oddly, while corporate America has been fighting on every level to kill ergonomics regulations, the U.S. Navy has been doing the opposite, adopting virtually the same ergonomic rule that was passed by the Washington Legislature. At the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Rick Williams, president of the Bremerton Metal Trades Council said, “They know that avoiding preventable injuries saves money and improves mission readiness. It’s really just common sense and it absolutely works.”

The message from Washington state is clear, and it’s one more big reason to defeat Bush in 2004. An over-the-top section of I-841 states that even if the federal government enacts a strong ergonomic rule, it cannot be enforced in Washington! That is how frightened corporate interests are of this regulation. So, let’s dump Bush, enact a new ergonomic rule, and challenge this anti-worker proposition in Washington state.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org