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August 29, 2000

Frequently asked questions about Ergonomics and Washington state's ergonomics rule

TUMWATER — The term "ergonomics" is making its way into the world of business, and Washington state's recently adopted ergonomics rule is one of the reasons why.

Ergonomics helps employers design jobs and workplaces to match human capabilities and limitations and identify factors in the workplace that may pose a hazard for work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs). Here are some frequently asked questions about workplace ergonomics.

  1. What is Washington state's ergonomics rule? It is a workplace safety and health rule to protect employees from WMSDs, such as back strain, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Under state law, employees have the right to a safe and healthful work environment. The ergonomics rule the Department of Labor & Industries adopted May 26 sets minimum safety requirements. These requirements help ensure that employers address workplace hazards that cripple and injure 50,000 Washington workers each year.
  2. Who does the ergonomics rule affect and when? The rule applies only to employers with "caution zone jobs " — jobs where the employee's typical work includes physical risk factors specified in the rule. One example is lifting objects weighing more than 25 pounds above the shoulders, below the knees or at arm's length more than 25 times per day.

    The requirements of the ergonomics rule phase in over a two- to five-year period that begins July 1, 2002. The length of the phase-in depends on the size of the business and what industry it is in. Initially, the rule will focus on larger employers (50 or more full-time equivalent workers) in the 12 industries having the highest risk of WMSDs. They include sawmills, nursing homes and several of the building trades.

  3. What does the ergonomics rule require employers to do? Employers with caution zone job must ensure that employees working in or supervising these jobs receive ergonomics- awareness education. They also must determine whether employee exposure in caution zone jobs is great enough to represent a WMSD hazard. If it is, the employer must reduce the exposure below hazardous levels or to the extent technologically and economically feasible.
  4. What is L&I doing to help employers prepare for the rule before it is enforced? L&I will be providing information and technical assistance to employers to help them comply with the rule before enforcement begins. Assistance includes:
    • Two- to five-year phase-in period. Most employers will have four or five years to comply with the rule.
    • L&I ergonomics web site (www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Topics/Ergonomics/), which provides quick access to information. Help also will be available from L&I consultants in local L&I offices.
    • Demonstration projects that will help identify industry best practices and test inspection policies and procedures before they are used.
    • Educational materials, including a model "ergonomics-awareness education" program, speakers and workshops.
  5. What is the blue-ribbon panel? Governor Locke has asked L&I to establish a panel of independent experts to determine whether adequate information and assistance are available to employers before enforcing the rule. The panel members will include both local and national representatives who have expertise in areas such as public policy, education and training and ergonomics.
  6. What are work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs)? Ergonomic injuries (WMSDs) are among the most common and costly occupational injuries and illnesses in Washington and the U.S. They include disorders such as back strain, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. They result in more than 50,000 workers' compensation claims each year and cost $411 million annually.
  7. What causes WMSDs? How will the ergonomics rule protect employees from WMSDs? WMSDs occur most often when the physical demands of work cause harmful wear and tear on the body. Symptoms include pain, motor weakness, sensory deficits and restricted ranges of motion. For example, applying excessive force, lifting heavy loads, working in awkward postures or performing certain repetitive motions over time can lead to injury.
  8. Is there scientific evidence that ergonomics will solve musculoskeletal problems? Yes. Scientific research on the effectiveness of ergonomic solutions, known as intervention studies, have been done in a number of different industries, including manufacturing, food processing, computerized offices and health care. Equally convincing evidence comes from employers themselves. There are examples of companies in a broad range of industries that have benefited from ergonomics programs.
  9. What are the costs and benefits of having a workplace ergonomics rule? L&I estimates that the benefits of complying with the rule are four times the cost. In the cost-benefit analysis L&I conducted as part of the rule-process, L&I estimated the annual cost at $80.4 million, an investment that will reduce work-related musculoskeletal disorders and save more than $340 million annually.
  10. What process did L&I use to adopt the rule? L&I adopted the ergonomics rule after a 20-month rule-making process. Before drafting the proposed rule, L&I actively engaged the business and labor communities and health professionals in detailed discussions. The department hosted community meetings in October 1998 and worked with two advisory committees from February 1999 through June 1999. In January 2000, L&I held 14 public hearings in seven cities. More than 340 people testified at the hearings and 850 submitted written comments. Based on that testimony and commentary, L&I made a number of changes to the proposed rule.

For more information about the ergonomics rule, visit: www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Topics/Ergonomics/ or contact the L&I office nearest you.

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For media information, contact: Cheryl Moore, L&I, 360-902-5414, chem235@LNI.wa.gov

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