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Ergonomics Plan Rejected by State Panel, Will Be Revised

Workplace: Office of Administrative Law criticizes vague language. Labor and employer groups hail decision.

January 03, 1997|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California's first-in-the-nation plan to protect workers against repetitive motion injuries hit an unexpected and potentially serious roadblock Thursday when a state agency rejected the proposal and sent it back for revisions.

The surprise veto of the state's ergonomics program by the California Office of Administrative Law could lead to a far-reaching overhaul of the controversial proposal. At the least, officials said, the move will postpone implementation of the program for up to six months.

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.

When the Republican-dominated Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board unanimously adopted its scaled-down plan to combat the ailments in November, it was expected to receive routine approval from the administrative law office. The only serious potential obstacle to the plan foreseen at the time was litigation by employer and union groups.

On Thursday, however, the administrative law office issued an 18-page notice that cited numerous examples of imprecise language in the regulations that would make them impossible to enforce.

The 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 would ask employers to "consider" other corrective measures, which could include anything from providing more rest breaks for factory workers suffering from bad backs to supplying specially designed keyboards to typists with sore wrists.

But the administrative law office criticized sections saying that the regulations would apply only to employers who have at least two workers diagnosed with injuries from performing identical tasks during the same year. Left unanswered, the OAL found, were such issues as what constitutes "identical" activities and whether the injuries must occur at the same workplace.

The OAL also said regulators failed to define what they meant when they said injuries must be "objectively identified" to qualify under the program.

Kept intact, however, was one of the most controversial elements of the program--an exemption for all employers with fewer than 10 workers.

Representatives of both employer and labor groups hailed the OAL's decision, expressing hope that the regulation could be either scrapped or reworked to their liking.

Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, called the OAL's decision "consistent with the position we have taken that the proposed regulations . . . are wholly inadequate."

Pulaski added that "there are people all over the state who are being disabled by jobs they didn't think would be disabling," including everyone from secretaries working on computers to truck drivers.

But representatives of the American Trucking Assns. contended that ergonomics regulations could prove costly to business without providing help for workers.

"There is no sound science proving that workplace activity causes so-called repetitive motion injuries. This standard would have cost California companies millions and even put some out of business--without guaranteeing the prevention of a single injury," said Thomas J. Donohue, the group's president.

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