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Ergonomic Solutions May Actually Save Firms Money

September 24, 1997|VICKI TORRES

They call themselves the Coalition for Common Sense and they want to repeal California's ergonomic regulations, which they say could end up costing businesses billions of dollars.

In case you missed it, those regulations went into effect in July.

And in case you also missed this, small businesses with nine or fewer employees--previously exempt from the regulations--are now subject to them, thanks to a decision nearly three weeks ago by a Sacramento Superior Court judge.

The language and instructions on when these smallest of businesses will be included are yet to come. Meanwhile, the judge's decision is likely to be appealed by both organized labor, which wants stricter standards, and business groups, which want no standard at all.

What does all this mean for small businesses?

Very little, say those who actually do hands-on ergonomic work.

Despite a long-standing political battle in Sacramento, a lawsuit that will likely drag on for years to the state Supreme Court and fears that mom-and-pop businesses will now have to extensively remodel their shops, small businesses are likely to remain untouched by the state's ergonomics rules.

That's because the new rules lack teeth, depend on worker complaints for action and are largely unenforceable, said Marianne Brown, director of UCLA's Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Program.

Opposition to the state's ergonomics regulations exists because "it's simply that a precedent is being set and businesses now have to think about ergonomics," Brown said.

Ergonomics--the study of work practices and equipment to avoid worker injury--may sound mysterious, complex and high-tech, but it's as simple as a school janitor attaching a broom handle to a hand-held scraper so that gum can be removed from a standing position instead of on hands and knees.

"A lot of ergonomics is just common sense," said Ira Janowitz, an ergonomics consultant with UC San Francisco.

But the California Trucking Assn., the California chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business and a number of school districts, trade groups and individual companies--more than 350 in all--believe common sense is on their side and have appropriated the name for their coalition.

They object to state regulations that require business owners to take remedying steps if two or more workers doing the same task are injured in the same year.

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They argue that it is impossible to define exactly what constitutes the same task. And they note that workers vary in strength, so that what may harm one may not affect another. They say that the practice of ergonomic medicine is inexact. And they contend that companies will have to buy expensive new equipment, slow the work pace and train employees, all of which could impede business and may still fail to remedy problems.

"It is a nightmare," said coalition spokeswoman Rochelle Lewis.

They're crying wolf, countered Brown, who lobbied for even stronger ergonomics regulations.

Businesses could actually be helped by paying attention to ergonomics, Brown said.

Repetitive motion injuries (RMI's) include a wide range of problems, including back injuries in construction, shoulder and wrist injuries in food-processing plants, and hand and forearm injuries in clerical jobs.

Such injuries cost businesses on average $10,000 per worker, with each worker absent from the job for 30 days, according to state and federal statistics. Those costs have prompted some businesses to begin taking another look at ergonomics, Brown said.

For example, a two-year study by a UCLA occupational safety program of a nursing home in Contra Costa County led to changes in how employees structured their jobs. Instead of one nurse's aide lifting patients in and out of beds, teams were assigned and lifting equipment purchased to lessen the strain. In six months, the nursing home had recovered its costs by savings on workers' compensation payments, Brown said.

Janowitz, the San Francisco consultant, reported similar cost-savings in a Northern California beef jerky processing plant. Workers who spent hours pushing small strips of meat onto drying skewers arranged on metal racks ended up with shoulder and wrist injuries and workers' compensation claims. The owners looked at the job and noticed that the racks seemed high for the women performing the task.

So, holes were drilled in the racks to lower the skewers and make them adjustable. The racks were also tilted to allow gravity to help push the meat onto the skewers. The solution cost less than $10,000, the average cost of just one workers' compensation claim--and the company had paid a number before, Janowitz said.

"It's not rocket science," he said. "You watch the workers do the work and you talk to them about it."

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Many solutions don't have to be high-priced, Brown said. Paper towels can serve as wrist rests at computers and phone books can be used as foot rests.

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