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Judge's Ruling Would Expand State Standard on Ergonomics

Workplace: Under the plan, employers with fewer than 10 workers would not be excluded.

September 06, 1997|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California's groundbreaking regulation to curb repetitive-motion injuries in the workplace could be substantially broadened to cover far more employers and employees because of a Superior Court decision Friday.

Judge James Ford of Sacramento said he will eliminate a section in the state's new ergonomics standard that exempted employers with fewer than 10 workers. He said he will also strike down a clause enabling employers to escape the regulation in cases when it could impose "unreasonable costs."

As a result, the regulation--which, when it took effect in July, became the first ergonomics standard in the nation--could eventually apply to all of the 13 million working Californians who are not in business for themselves. It is intended to protect them from such ailments as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis.

But the judge, expected to issue his formal written ruling as soon as next week, left unclear what will happen next. Both the business and labor groups that went to court to challenge the standard said Ford did not clarify whether a revised regulation could quickly be put into effect or whether state officials would need to redraft the entire plan.

Though employer groups vowed to appeal the judge's decision and branded it as damaging to the state's business climate, labor leaders were delighted.

"We're left with a better regulation by far than the one we started with," said Tom Rankin, the No. 2 official of the California Labor Federation. Although labor officials stress they want the standard to be strengthened further, Rankin said the ruling "will go a long way toward reducing repetitive-motion injuries." and thereby reducing workers' compensation costs."

Still, organized labor didn't win everything it sought in court. The judge said he would uphold language providing that the regulation is triggered only when at least two workers are found by a licensed physician to have injuries as a result of performing the same tasks during a 12-month period. Organized labor was hoping to strike down the two-injury provision, among other requirements.

On the other hand, employer groups were seeking to invalidate the entire regulation. They argued that the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board didn't follow legal requirements before issuing the regulation last spring. The employer groups, led by the trucking industry, faulted the standards board for failing to conduct a cost-benefit analysis.

Employer groups have also long maintained that there is not enough scientific evidence available about repetitive-motion injuries to justify regulation.

Also known by such names as repetitive-stress injuries and repeated or cumulative trauma disorders, these problems emerged in the 1980s and early 1990s as the nation's fastest-spreading occupational ailment. That pattern continued until 1995 when, according to the latest figures, the number of these disorders in the U.S. private sector finally declined, by 7%, to 308,200.

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