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May 26, 2000

Ergonomics rule
Major step toward preventing 50,000 injuries per year

TUMWATER - An ergonomics rule adopted today will help Washington employers reduce workplace hazards that cripple and injure more than 50,000 Washington workers a year. These injuries cost employers more than $411 million a year.

"Under Governor Gary Locke's direction, we will establish a blue-ribbon panel of independent experts to determine that the rule requirements are understandable and the proposed enforcement policies are fair and consistent," said Gary Moore, director of the Department of Labor & Industries. "We will not enforce the rule until this panel has determined that effective educational materials are widely available and demonstration projects are successful.

"This rule is unique. It provides safer workplaces for employees. But I want to guarantee employers that it will be a rule that works correctly before any enforcement occurs," Moore said. "We will have demonstration projects first before enforcement.

"Ergonomic injuries are a huge problem - a third of workers' compensation claims - but we've found a unique solution that will assist employers and protect workers," Moore said.

"This rule will accomplish specific things," Moore said. "Employers will be required to find and fix ergonomic hazards in their workplaces. But equally important, the rule won't change the workers' compensation system in any manner, and it won't subject employers to penalties for workers who suffer ergonomic injuries."

The new rule and implementation plan include many unprecedented features:

  • The rule will be phased in over two to five years, allowing time for employers to prepare for compliance. The time also will allow employers and L&I to gain experience by working together on voluntary demonstration projects.
  • Employers who agree to participate in the voluntary demonstration projects will receive financial incentives such as workers' compensation premium discounts.
  • The implementation plan will include a very extensive technical assistance program and training for employers, especially small businesses.
  • L&I will create a blue-ribbon panel of independent experts who will review the agency's technical assistance efforts. The panel will advise L&I whether employers understand the rule requirements before enforcement of rule requirements begin.

These injuries, such as back strain, tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, cost more than $411 million a year in medical treatment and lost wages alone, according to L&I's workers' compensation data.

L&I conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the rule. The estimated benefits to employers from reducing these hazards are $340 million per year. The estimated cost of complying with the rule is $80.4 million per year.

The rule will require employers to evaluate jobs to identify potential ergonomic risks such as awkward, heavy lifting or highly repetitive motion. Employers must reduce employee exposure when these jobs are hazardous. Employers also must provide basic ergonomics education for employees who work in or supervise "risky" jobs.

The requirements of the rule phase in over a period of years. How long depends on the size of the business and what industry it is in. Initially, the rule will focus on larger employers (50 or more full-time equivalent workers) in the 12 industries having the highest risk of ergonomic injury. They include sawmills, nursing homes and several of the most hazardous building trades.

Although L&I is not a high-risk industry, the department will be among the first to comply with the rule. The implementation schedule follows:

Industries First Deadline:
Awareness Education and Hazard Analysis Completed
Second Deadline:
Hazard Reduction Completed
Large, highest risk employers (50 or more FTE annually)

Department of Labor & Industries

July 1, 2002 July 1, 2003
Remaining highest risk employers

All other large employers (50 or more FTE annually)

July 1, 2003 July 1, 2004
All other moderate-sized employers (11 to 49 FTE annually) July 1, 2004 July 1, 2005
All other smaller employers (1 to 10 FTE annually) July 1, 2005 July 1, 2006

 

FTE: The equivalent of one person working 2,000 hours per year. Two people working half time count as one FTE.

A very open process

Labor & Industries adopted the ergonomics rule after a 20-month rule-making process that included community meetings, advisory committees and 14 public hearings. More than 240 people testified at the hearings and 850 submitted written comments.

Based on testimony and comments, changes in the proposed rule were made. For example:

  • Providing a more specific definition of "typical work activities" to make it clear that incidental or occasional exposures are not covered. (WAC 296-62-05105)
  • New language saying employers are not required to move from a full-time to a part-time workforce or to reduce an individual's work hours in order to comply with the rule. (WAC 296-62-05130(5)(c))
  • All employers will have nine more months to meet the rule's first deadline. References to "employees" changed to "annual full-time equivalent," which extends the deadline for some of the smallest businesses. This is important to seasonal employers with peaks in business, like agriculture and construction.

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A copy of the rule, its concise explanatory statement and more information is available at this link.

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