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State OKs Rule for Jobs Involving Repetitive Motion

Safety: Ergonomics standard targets cumulative trauma injuries. But employers say it is too costly to enforce and labor groups complain that it's too weak.

November 15, 1996|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taking a groundbreaking step against a fast-spreading occupational hazard, California regulators Thursday approved the nation's first ergonomics standard aimed at preventing repetitive motion injuries in the workplace.

But both employer and labor groups, which have clashed bitterly for years over ergonomics proposals, immediately blasted the new rule and vowed to go to court to block it.

The terse, 1 1/2-page standard would require employers to provide special training to injured workers and others handling the same duties. In addition, the standard asks employers to "consider" other corrective measures, which could include anything from providing more rest breaks for factory workers suffering from bad backs to supplying ergonomic keyboards to typists with sore wrists.

Painful repetitive motion disorders, including carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and muscle sprains, are generally considered the fastest-spreading ailment in the workplace and a threat to both white- and blue-collar workers.

The latest national figures show that 332,100 workers suffered such disorders in 1994, up 10% from the year before and up ninefold over the last decade.

Job safety advocates, however, complained that the new California standard is riddled with loopholes and too weak to fight the problem. They noted that it applies only to employers who have at least two workers diagnosed with injuries from performing identical tasks during the same year.

"It is an unenforceable standard," said Tom Rankin, the No. 2 leader of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. "Any employer can say, sorry, the work wasn't identical."

The standard also exempts firms with fewer than 10 employees, which account for an estimated 14% of working Californians. Officials were at a loss to determine how many of the state's 14 million workers and nearly 900,000 employers would be covered in a typical year.

Still, worker advocates expressed some hope that the standard's passage will revive stalled efforts by federal officials to launch a national program to combat repetitive motion ailments.

The regulation "could be useful to the extent that it confirms there is a significant work-related problem resulting from ergonomic hazards, and that government action is necessary to do something about it," said Peg Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO Department of Occupational Safety and Health.

"That said, the solution being put forward is the most minimal action that could be taken. . . . It was not a serious effort to protect workers."

Employer groups said adopting any ergonomics standard is unjustified given the lack of generally accepted scientific evidence on how repetitive motion injuries can be effectively treated and prevented.

They also expressed worries that occupational safety inspectors will apply the standard broadly, driving up the cost of doing business. "Today's action, if it stands, will be devastating for trucking companies in California and will cripple the [state] economy," said Thomas J. Donohue, president of the American Trucking Assn., the business group that promised to go to court to block the standard.

Required as part of a workers' compensation reform package passed by the state Legislature in 1993, the standard initially was envisioned as a comprehensive plan to cover every worker and employer in California. It was intended to curb on-the-job injuries that drive up workers' compensation insurance costs in the state.

But employers furiously resisted the idea, and initially succeeded in blocking action. The Republican-dominated Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, which unanimously approved the standard Thursday in San Diego, refused to adopt an earlier proposal when faced with its first deadline to act two years ago.

When labor unions won a court order last year requiring the board to approve a standard, however, the work went forward on the limited plan ultimately adopted.

The standards board members "were stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Julianne Broyles, a lobbyist for the California Chamber of Commerce, which has been more moderate than other business groups in its criticism.

Still, Broyles said, "I don't think employers are going to be satisfied with this. We're just glad that since the standards board members were caught between the court order and the legislative mandate, that they at least listened to business concerns when they crafted the regulation."

The rapid spread of repetitive motion injuries--also known as repetitive stress injuries and cumulative trauma or musculoskeletal disorders--has fueled the drive for workplace regulation. The 1994 figures for California show that 31,800 workers reported ailments from repetitive tasks, up nearly 15% from the year before and up eightfold since 1984.

Still, many firms contend that existing job safety regulations, and the economic incentives to cut workers' compensation costs, provide enough of a push to curb ergonomic problems.

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