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December 29, 1999

Ergonomics: Smarter, safer workplaces prevent injury

By Gary Moore
Director, Washington Department of Labor & Industries

Imagine you're sitting at Safeco Field, waiting for the opening pitch at a Mariners game. The standing-room-only crowd has packed the stands.

Now, visualize all those fans with aching wrists and injured backs.

50,000 Washington workers - the equivalent of an entire stadium crowd - are hurt each year from what are called "ergonomic" injuries. These include sprains, strains, muscle tears and back problems caused by work-related tasks.

The consequences of these injuries are serious at work and at home. A worker with numb hands can't firmly grip tools at work or a toothbrush at home. A worker in pain can't concentrate while operating a machine or a car. A worker with an injured back can't lift boxes at work or his children at home. Unlike machines, workers don't come with spare parts.

And your job shouldn't rob you of your health.

The staggering financial impact affects employers, too. Medical costs and wage-replacement benefits alone cost more than $340 million a year. Losses in productivity and quality drive employers' costs much higher.

Sound medical science tells us many of these painful and expensive injuries never had to happen in the first place. There are effective ways to design jobs, select tools and modify work methods so workers can safely do their jobs. That's why the Department of Labor & Industries has proposed an ergonomics regulation to help prevent more injuries.

Ergonomics means working smarter and safer, and protecting a worker's body from unnecessary wear and tear on the job. It means using a cart to move materials instead of carrying them and changing the height of a work surface to eliminate awkward posture.

Employers have a responsibility to reduce workplace hazards instead of simply responding if an injury occurs.

We recognize that government has a responsibility, too. We need to make certain that employers have the time and tools they need to approach ergonomics in a deliberate, well-planned manner. That is what Washington's proposed ergonomics rule would do.

Before writing the proposal, the Department of Labor & Industries worked with advisory committees that included representatives from business, labor and the medical community. Committee members helped define the elements of a workable rule.

The proposed rule commits L&I to work with "demonstration employers" to test compliance guides, best practices and inspection policies before enforcement begins. Employers will have three to six years to comply to allow time to make sure the implementation efforts are fair and effective.

The core of the proposed rule begins when a business evaluates each job to see whether a job's requirements represent an ergonomic risk. We estimate that about 30 percent of businesses will have no ergonomically risky jobs. If so, they'll have to do nothing else to comply with this regulation. If a business has a job with potential risks, then the job will need to be evaluated. Ergonomic awareness education will be presented to employees working in these jobs.

If exposure to risk - frequent lifting or repetitive motion, for example - reaches a hazardous level, the employer must reduce the exposure to a non-hazardous level or to the extent feasible.

Some employers already recognize the importance of protecting their workers. Under the proposed rule, these employers would be able to continue their effective ergonomics programs.

We applaud Washington employers who have willingly embraced ergonomics. They know that smarter, safer workplaces prevent injury and protect employees from unnecessary pain and disability. Ergonomics also saves them money.

Unfortunately, many businesses are not doing enough to protect workers from ergonomic hazards. An ergonomics rule would provide these businesses with the guidelines they need and a requirement to take action to protect their workers.

You are encouraged to add your voice to the public discussion of this important workplace safety and health issue. Labor & Industries will host public hearings across the state: Jan. 5, Seattle; Jan. 6, Everett; Jan. 10, Tacoma; Jan. 11, Vancouver; Jan. 12, Spokane; Jan. 13, Yakima; and Jan. 14, Tumwater.

You can learn more about the proposal and the public hearings by visiting L&I's web site: /wisha/ergo or by calling 360-902-5523. You can submit written comments until 5 p.m. Feb. 14. (Note: On January 24, L&I extended the deadline for written comments to Feb. 24, 2000.)

The $340 million annual price tag that goes with these injuries is enormous. But we're talking about more than just dollars and cents. These 50,000 injured workers are real people -- people who are in pain, people unable to work, people with personal lives damaged by the physical demands of their jobs. This rule is necessary to prevent these needless injuries.

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