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State's Ergonomics Rules Draw Little Business Opposition

Workplace: Regulations that went into effect in 1998 are weak and seldom enforced, according to safety advocates.

March 08, 2001|STUART SILVERSTEIN and NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

California employer groups howled about the potential pitfalls of ergonomics regulations when unions and lawmakers pushed plans in the 1990s to protect workers in the state from repetitive motion injuries.

Today, more than three years after California became the first state in the nation with an ergonomics standard, business is barely making a peep about the issue. But the reasons provide little comfort to worker safety advocates: The California regulations are widely considered to be weak and, beyond that, they are rarely enforced.

And even on the infrequent occasions when the regulations are enforced, records show that the employers paying the biggest penalties have been state agencies.

For proponents of rules to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion injuries, the California experience is worrisome. Some fear, as Congress sends President Bush a repeal of ergonomics regulations installed by the Clinton administration, that any future federal rules would prove just as modest as California's.

"Having a regulation on the books of some sort, regardless of how weak it is, is motivation for some employers who want to do the right thing," said Maggie Robbins, a health and safety consultant for the California Labor Federation. But, Robbins added, the California standard "is not an effective enforcement tool because it is too difficult for compliance officers to show a violation."

Cal/OSHA figures tell the story. Since the state began enforcing its ergonomics standard in 1998, only 41 work sites--from among California's 1.1 million employers--have been investigated and only 73 citations have been issued.

What's more, the biggest penalty--a pair of citations totaling $45,000--involved employees at the state prison in Susanville. The next biggest citation, for $9,000, went to the California Highway Patrol in Irvine. Cal/OSHA did not disclose the specific violations.

All told, the once-feared California regulations have faded as a political issue among employers.

"We think it's working pretty darn well," said Julianne A. Broyles, a specialist in employment issues for the California Chamber of Commerce. Broyles credited the regulations with taking into account worker safety without imposing undue burdens on employers.

Shirley Knight, lobbyist for the California chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said many of her organization's 30,000 small-business members in the state still consider ergonomics regulations "a threat." Still, she said, the state's ergonomics plan recently "has not been one of our top five issues. At most, 1% of our calls deal with ergonomics."

Whether the California ergonomics standard is having significant impact is difficult, if not impossible, to determine. Workplace injury statistics are available for only two years after enforcement began, 1998 and 1999.

In 1999, the number of reported cases of what are known as disorders associated with repeated trauma--a key category of ergonomics-related injuries--was 32,900, up from 31,900 in 1998. The 1999 total also was up from the 32,300 level in 1997 but down from the peak of 33,900 in 1996.

Noting that the total has varied relatively little in recent years despite growth in the California work force, Cal/OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer said the ergonomics standard has helped. "It's created a lot of awareness," he said.

The California ergonomics standard was mandated under a workers' compensation reform package passed by the state Legislature in 1993. The idea was embraced by organized labor but bitterly opposed by employers, and a state commission in charge of drafting a plan refused to act on the issue. Eventually, a court order prodded the state to adopt its plan in 1997, but legal battles raged for another two years.

Many health and safety specialists say the resulting California regulations--less than two typed pages long--are too limited to carry much weight.

The federal standard would be triggered by just one job-related injury, but the state standard requires two diagnosed injuries within a year to workers performing identical tasks. Health and safety experts said that's a difficult requirement because, among other reasons, workers are generally reluctant to complain.

The state rules also declare that in most cases any action taken by an employer to address an injury-causing hazard is sufficient. The only exception would be if the state can prove the employer knew about other measures that were "substantially certain to cause a greater reduction in such injuries" and that the measure "would not impose additional unreasonable costs."

Labor activists call those provisions a "trapdoor" for employers.

"They wanted something that had as little impact as possible," Robbins said, "and they got it."

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