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Nov. 15, 1999

Proposed ergonomics rule: Washington state says 50,000 worker injuries a year too many to ignore

TUMWATER - The Department of Labor & Industries today proposed a new regulation to help employers reduce ergonomic hazards that cripple and injure more than 50,000 Washington workers every year.

The proposed rule will protect workers from the primary cause of injury and illness at Washington workplaces, according to L&I Director Gary Moore, who unveiled the ergonomics proposal at a news conference in Seattle today. The rule is aimed at preventing work-related musculoskeletal disorders ("ergonomic injuries"), such as back strains, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. The afflictions cost Washington businesses millions of dollars a year.

"Ergonomics is about working smarter and safer," Moore said. "It's about protecting a worker's body from unnecessary wear and tear on the job. It's about reducing pain and increasing productivity. That's good for workers and good for employers.

"We have the ability and the tools to stop this needless pain and suffering," Moore said. "This is the right thing to do, and now is the time to do it. Workers are entitled to protection from preventable injury. Your job shouldn't rob you of your health."

The proposed rule will be presented for testimony at 14 public hearings in January. Moore said he wants the hearings to produce a full and open discussion of the proposal.

"While the $340 million annual price tag that goes with these injuries is enormous, we are talking about more than dollars and cents," Moore said. "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."

Michael Silverstein, M.D., L&I's assistant director for workplace safety and health, said the rule resulted from discussions with business, labor, the medical community and others who care about the health of working people and the concerns of business. Public meetings held last year and comments from advisory committees helped shape the proposal.

"We drafted an ergonomics proposal that protects workers," Silverstein said. "The proposal also gives employers the support they need to successfully implement these new safety rules."

Ergonomics is the science of designing jobs, selecting tools and modifying work methods to better fit workers' capabilities and prevent injury.

Initially, the rule would focus on larger employers (50 or more employees) in the industries that have the highest risk of ergonomic injury. They include general contractors in residential construction, roofers, nursing homes and sawmills.

Employers subject to the rule would evaluate jobs that typically involve exposure to the physical risk factors described in the rule and make changes if the exposure to any of them reaches a hazardous level. For example, repeatedly lifting heavy boxes from a conveyor onto a pallet, then reaching across the pallet to stack them poses a hazard, and the employer would have to reduce it.

Under the proposed rule, employers could quickly determine whether the rule applied to their business, and there would be flexibility for companies with ergonomics programs under way. Employees in ergonomically risky jobs would receive information on prevention. They would have opportunities to help their employers design solutions.

Moore said some employers have willingly embraced ergonomics to protect their employees from unnecessary injury. "But as we have seen with other workplace hazards, some employers will not voluntarily act to reduce them. That is why we need an ergonomics rule," he said. "The proof is in the number of workers' compensation claims paid by L&I. Tens of thousands of injuries continue each year. That's wrong and we have to do something about it."

The dates and locations of the hearings follow. Hearing times are 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Jan. 5 Washington State Convention Center, Room 618-620,  8th & Pike Seattle

Jan. 6 Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel, Orcas Room, 3105 Pine St. Everett 

Jan. 10 Tacoma Public Library, Olympic Room, 1102 Tacoma Ave. S. Tacoma 

Jan. 11 Red Lion Hotel at the Quay, Centennial Center, 100 Columbia St. Vancouver 

Jan. 12 Cavanaugh's Inn at the Park, Skyline Room, 303 W. North River Dr.   Spokane 

Jan. 13 Cavanaugh's at Yakima Center, Ball Room, 607 E. Yakima Ave. Yakima 

Jan. 14 L&I Building, Room S117-S118, 7273 Linderson Way S.W. Tumwater 

L&I will accept oral and written comments at the public hearings. Written comments may be mailed, faxed or e-mailed until 5 p.m., Feb. 14, 2000. The fax number is 360-902-5529. (Faxed comments must be 10 or fewer pages.) The e-mail address is: ergorule@lni.wa.gov.

To mail comments, address correspondence to:

Department of Labor & Industries
WISHA Services Division, Standards Section
P.O. Box 44620
Olympia, WA 98504-4620

More information about the rule proposal and about general ergonomics can be found on L&I's Ergonomics web page.

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