Published May 2002

State ergonomics rule is too costly, results are unproven

By Don C. Brunell
Guest Editorial

A recent New York Times story on President Bush’s approach to ergonomics contained the following statement:

“The new policy addresses one of the worst safety problems in the American workplace — more than 1.8 million injuries, such as neck sprains and carpal tunnel syndrome that result each year from repetitive motions like lifting, bending and typing.”

If neck sprains and inflammation from bending and typing constitute “one of the worst safety problems in the American workplace,” that could be the “good news”!

Don’t get me wrong, injuries are never good news whether in the workplace or at home. But employers and employees have worked hard to improve workplace safety and prevent accidents. Ironically, the current near-hysteria over ergonomics reflects their success.

In the past, worker safety focused on mine cave-ins and factory accidents that maimed or killed thousands of workers each year. In many parts of the world, those concerns are real even today, but the “crisis” in our country now concerns stresses, strains and typing injuries.

In fact, workplace safety has improved so dramatically that you’re now safer at work than you are at home. Job-related fatalities have dropped 90 percent since 1930, and the injury rate for manufacturing workers has dropped two-thirds since 1926.

Why is this important?

Because we need to keep ergonomic injuries in perspective. Yes, we should work to reduce stresses and strains from repetitive motion, and employers have made substantial progress through voluntary efforts. But eliminating ergonomic injuries is harder — and more expensive — than it sounds.

For example, experts disagree on how many repetitive motions are “too many.” In fact, they can’t even agree on what causes carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) in the first place. Recent studies indicate CTS can be caused by a host of underlying ailments unrelated to a person’s job.

Nevertheless, Washington state’s ergonomics regulation — the only one of its kind — requires all public-sector and private-sector employers to prevent such injuries. In essence, the state is telling employers, “We don’t know exactly what causes this injury or how to prevent it, but you’re supposed to do it anyway.”

You can’t blame employers for feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland, watching people giving speeches and issuing mandates that make no sense at all.

For example, state officials decry the increasing cost of health care. Those same officials are imposing an ergonomics regulation that will add millions to health-care costs.

How? Workers in hospitals and nursing homes throughout the state turn, lift and move thousands of bedridden patients each day. To comply with the state’s new ergonomics regulation, hospitals and nursing homes will have to buy hundreds of expensive hydraulic winches.

Your nursing home doesn’t have that kind of money? No problem, say state regulators. Just hire enough aides to have one person for every 51 pounds of the patient’s body weight.

Expenditures like that are why an independent study found that the state’s ergonomics regulation will cost public and private employers an additional $700 million a year — with no guarantee that it will prevent a single injury.

Washington employers have voluntarily made great strides in reducing ergonomic injuries without costly, burdensome and ineffective mandates that further threaten our state’s fragile business climate.

Gov. Locke, state legislators and regulators at Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries should take another look at this issue, before the ergonomics rule breaks the back of our state’s economy and puts Washington at an even greater competitive disadvantage with the rest of the world.

Don C. Brunell is President of the Association of Washington Business.

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