Success Stories


Washington voters passed an initiative on November 4, 2003 to repeal L&I’s ergonomics rule, effective December 4, 2003. The Department of Labor & Industries has posted a statement here.

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Vancouver assembly plant tackles injuries with ergonomics

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Story reprinted, with permission, from the Vancouver Business Journal, March 9, 2001. For more information about the publication, go to .

By Cheryl Moore
Special to the Vancouver Business Journal

It takes more than electronic wizardry to turn computer chips, picture tubes and plastic into television sets. Assembly-line workers use their bodies - hands, wrists, shoulders and backs - to put the components together. Without attention to ergonomics, repetitive motions can damage muscles and nerves, ligaments and joints, and send worker injuries climbing.
    Matsushita Kotobuki Electronics is tackling musculoskeletal injuries at its Vancouver plant, which assembles TV/VCR and TV/DVD/VCR units. Chassis and picture tubes built elsewhere are united with the cabinets manufactured on site. About 500 employees work year round, and up to 300 temporary workers come on board during peak production, August through October.
    While robotic devices perform some work - spray painting the cabinets, for example - many of the 50 to 70 assembly steps, depending on the type of unit, require the human touch.
    "We were seeing some issues with injuries. Our injury rate was higher than the average for our industry and we wanted to do something about that," said Marianne Spurlock, a member of the environmental health and safety team at the plant.
    Throughout the plant, larger than two football fields, employees and machines perform varied tasks to assemble and ship 1.3 million "combo" units a year. In the receiving bays, forklifts deliver pallets of chassis and picture tubes from other plants, and workers load them onto conveyors. In molding, machines turn plastic pellets into TV cabinets while workers inspect and box the cabinets for delivery to the painting area. On the assembly lines, workers put the components together. They re-route and connect wires, insert speakers and screws, make adjustments and test mechanical parts. Workers in the packing area make sure the units are properly boxed and add packing materials, then machines seals the boxes and move them on a conveyor system into the warehouse.
    Spurlock said company management began to recognize the problem and possible solutions after hiring Ian Goodridge, environmental health and safety manager, in October 1998.
    Goodridge was first to champion ergonomics, which is defined as the science and practice of designing jobs or workplaces to match the capabilities and limitations of the human body. He analyzed the company's injury data and determined that most of the injuries were soft-tissue injuries associated with repetitive strain, awkward postures and awkward lifting. Goodridge then developed a plan to institute ergonomics, and received approval from company president Kenzo Hayashi to move forward.
    Last May, Matsushita's plan went into motion. The company hired Situs Consulting Services in Portland to make recommendations and provide training. In less than six months, the company:

  • Set up an Ergo team. The members of the team include several managers, assistant managers and group leaders from the plant floor, as well as representatives from engineering and environmental health and safety.

  • Trained members of the Ergo Team to perform job analysis. Using a checklist, they look at each job in their area to identify risks and hazards and determine if they can be modified by work practices.

  • Instituted job rotation on the assembly lines. Rotation provides variety in workers' movements or positions and, in the process, decreases the likelihood of strains and sprains from prolonged repetitious movements. Employees rotate to four different workstations each shift, two hours each, and rotate to different workstations throughout the week. Every three weeks, workers change assembly lines.

  • Moved foot pedals. They now fit under a worker's heel instead of his or her toes. This placement means a worker can press the heel down to operate the pedal rather than repeatedly lifting up the entire foot to press with the toes.

  • Added grips to hand tools to increase friction, which helps reduce grip force and makes the tool less likely to slip or twist out of a worker's hand.

  • Introduced employees to the benefits of proper body mechanics and started a stretching-exercise program. Employees are encouraged to exercise intermittently, for example, while they wait for the next unit on the assembly line to move into position.

    Spurlock said heightened awareness of ergonomics has already made a difference even though employee education is still in the early stages. She believes employees feel more empowered over their workstations because what they are learning helps them make informed decisions about work practices.
    "We are in the process of developing a standardized, ongoing training program for employees," she said.
   Ergonomics can involve engineering changes as well. At Matsushita, an employee's suggestion led to the installation of an articulating arm with a magnet at the end of it. Its purpose? To remove screws that a robotic device sometimes improperly installs. Before the company installed the articulating arm, an employee would have to climb onto a stepladder, lean over and out to reach the TV/VCR unit and manually remove the screw.
    Matsushita has already identified several other short-term engineering changes:

  • Modifying existing chairs to reduce awkward positions and improve posture. For example, a support pad on a chair back can help an employee keep his or her back properly aligned and supported.

  • Purchasing sit/stand chairs. This type of chair allows an employee to vary his or her position and switch back and forth from sitting to standing.

  • Purchasing new hand-tools that eliminate awkward hand positions and pad the hand against repeated pressure.

  • Purchasing these hand-tools in different sizes to fit workers' various hand sizes.

    The company is starting now to budget for more costly investments they want to implement a year or two in the future. For example, the company would like to purchase or build a mechanized pallet. It would automatically raise a stack of components so a worker can move each component on to the conveyor at waist height instead of bending or stooping to the floor to lift the components off the bottom of the pallet.
    Last year, as Matsushita Kotobuki was building its fledgling ergonomics program, the Department of Labor & Industries adopted a workplace ergonomics rule. The rule addresses musculoskeletal injuries - typically sprains, strains, muscle tears and back problems - that strike 50,000 workers in Washington each year. According to L&I, employers' annual costs for medical expenses and wage-replacement benefits for workers with these injuries exceed $410 million and account for nearly half the costs of workers' compensation claims.
    For companies that have not taken steps to protect workers from sprain and strain hazards, the rule provides the guidelines they need and a requirement to act.
    While adoption of the ergonomics rule added a push to Matsushita's actions, the commitment had already been made.
    "We could have sold this plan to management a number of ways - too many injuries, the cost of workers' compensation claims, the effects of work restrictions on scheduling and turnover," Spurlock said.
    Ergonomics puts the focus on prevention, not just managing claims, Spurlock said.
    "Our consultant said work shouldn't hurt and we totally agree. We want to do all we can to protect our employees from injury."

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Construction Firms, Others Face Tough Ergonomic Rules

Story reprinted, with permission, from the Yakima Valley Business Times, March 9, 2001. 

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     New workplace ergonomics rules, adopted last May by the Washington state Department of Labor & Industries, begin taking effect in July 2002.
     L&I supports the rule by pointing out that musculoskeletal injuries - typically sprains, strains, muscle tears and back problems - cripple and injure 50,000 workers statewide each year and account for early half the costs of workers' compensation claims.
     L&I says employers' annual costs for medical expenses and wage-replacement benefits are more than $410 million.
     Business groups, such as the National Federation of Small Business, disagree with the rules and claim that they will put an undue financial burden on many companies without solving any problems. They claim ergonomics injuries are unproven and want the government to conduct trial programs before implementing the new rules.
     Business groups also claim L&I is an over-zealous agency which is implementing the new rules with no legislative authority.
     Legislation has been introduced that, if adopted, would revise the regulations.
     In the meantime, some companies are proceeding to implement ergonomic changes. Here's a look at one of them: Ace Hardware in Yakima.

Ace Gets The Jump On New State Ergonomics Regulations

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By Steve Pierce
Dept. of Labor & Industries

When it comes to preventing sore shoulders, backaches or numb fingers, you might say Ace is the place.
     Ace Hardware's huge distribution warehouse in Yakima, full of 62,000 different stocking items, could be a breeding ground for strains and sprains. After all, packing, unpacking, shelving and generally moving everything from water heaters to containers of nails involves hefting, hoisting and huffing.
     But Ace is a place that prides itself on its efforts over the past several years to keep its 250 workers as injury free as possible, particularly from so-called musculoskeletal problems such as back strain, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
     "Our antenna goes up very quickly because we're a distribution center," says Telara McCullough, human-resource manager.  "Some 40 to 45 percent of our injuries are musculoskeletal."
     Of 16 Ace Retail Support Centers in the United States and Canada, the Yakima facility has been a leader in ergonomics, a term that simply means matching jobs to human capabilities and limitations. Ace has redone the entire way merchandise is received at the loading dock and, later, repackaged for outbound deliveries.
     When new forklifts are purchased, Ace looks for ergonomic accommodations, such as padded back extensions. Storage procedures have been changed to make sure heavier merchandise is shelved at waist height rather than at lower levels that require more bending and lifting.
     It has instituted a flex-and-stretch program at the beginning of each work shift. A bay of shelves has been set aside as a training ground on how to properly handle merchandise. Supervisors do new-employee safety training one-on-one for increased emphasis and attention, rather than in groups.
     You name it and Ace has done it for its helpful hardware men and women - all in the name of injury prevention, particularly for strains and sprains.
     "We want to reduce the frequency of injuries. They are very disabling," says McCullough, not to mention costly. "If you want to be a competitive employer in the marketplace today, you need to offer a good job and a safe job."
     As far back as 1988, Ace Hardware began evaluating how vendors' merchandise was received at the warehouse unloading dock: in individual boxes and crates stored floor to ceiling. Workers unloading trucks had to handle every piece of freight.
     "Receiving was the worst job in the warehouse," says Regional Manager Bob Pasek. "It was not productive, not cost effective, not healthy.
     "We couldn't hire and keep people in this job. By the time you did that six hours a day, week after week, you wanted out."
     Ace began asking - even demanding - that vendors containerize their merchandise, meaning that, in most cases, forklifts could be used to unload trucks quickly and efficiently. Resistance came from vendors who worried that containers didn't fill trucks from floor to ceiling and, therefore, reduced the usable volume and increased operating costs.
     A few years later, the company itself began to containerize its outbound shipments headed for points in its distribution area of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. This reduced the fatigue- and injury-inducing manual labor required to load and unload a truck, but also underutilized a truck's usable volume.
     Nevertheless, there was a payoff: Injuries from lifting, reaching and bending decreased, and operating costs dropped because an unloading process at stores that previously took up to three hours now took about 20 minutes.
      In outbound cargo aboard Ace tractor-trailer rigs, "we lost about a third of the cubic volume of a trailer, but we have improved on our efficiency," says Scott Zirlin, distribution center manager.
     The newest innovation at the Yakima warehouse is an area set aside for employee training. There, with individual supervision, a new employee learns how to stock the shelves using proper bending, grasping and lifting techniques. For instance, instead of bear-hugging a heavy water-heater carton and wriggling it off the shelf, they're shown how to tip the carton and leverage it onto a cart.
     "We give them every opportunity to fill the most difficult product" during the training time, says Zirlin.
     If longtime employees start showing a pattern of aches and pains or actual injuries, "we'll go back to the beginning" and renew their safety training, says McCullough, who notes that ongoing training will be vital for continued success in injury prevention and reduction.
     In contrast to some employers who dispute the need for state ergonomics rules, Ace officials can almost pass as ergonomics cheerleaders. They clearly believe they're on the right path.
     "Ergonomics is a win-win," says Pasek. "We get a safer, less-injury environment that allows us to retain people, and we get higher productivity."
     Adds Zirlin: "Ergonomics is the core of our success because if we can retain and keep people healthy, it's the basis of our success."

(Steve Pierce is a public information officer with the Washington Department of Labor & Industries.)

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Ergonomic changes reduce injuries
Shoemakers designs jobs to reduce repetitive stress

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Story reprinted, with permission, from the (Ellensburg) Daily Record, March 8, 2001.

By Steve Pierce
Special to the Daily Record 

     CLE ELUM - What do you get when you take about 11 million pounds of steel and aluminum a year and run it through punch-press machines?
     Hundreds of thousands of grilles, registers, dampers and louvers for heating and air-conditioning systems.
     What do you get when workers handle those raw materials and finished products?
     Possible injuries.
     At Shoemaker Manufacturing Co., a metal-stamping facility in Cle Elum, the repetitive motions involved in making grilles and registers have created the potential for work-related injuries such as back strain, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Collectively, these types of injuries are known as musculoskeletal disorders.
     "A lot of what we do is repetitive work," says general manager Richard Low. A few years ago, the company realized that "the cost of injuries was substantial. A lot of money was going out the back door" in costs associated with injured employees being off the job and in workers' compensation premiums paid to the Washington Department of Labor & Industries. The company's L&I premiums in 1997 were $258,000.
     Then along came a growing awareness that the principles of ergonomics - the science and practice of designing jobs or workplaces to match the capabilities and limitations of the human body - could make a positive difference in the workplace and help reduce sprains and strains.
     "We had to educate ourselves (about ergonomics), because we saw that the problem was occurring too much to turn our head the other way," says Linda Wunder, office and human-resources manager.
     The state Department of Labor & Industries also realized the extent of the problem and adopted a new state ergonomics rule that will provide guidelines for employers and a requirement that they take action to protect workers from sprains and strains. L&I records show that employers' annual costs for medical expenses and wage-replacement benefits for workers with musculoskeletal injuries are more than $410 million. The injuries cripple and injure 50,000 workers in Washington each year, and account for nearly half the costs of workers' compensation claims.
     Shoemaker, Cle Elum's largest private employer with 160 workers, began to focus on three areas: enhanced safety programs, along with ongoing training; changing the way certain factory processes were done; and modifying or replacing equipment that had a history of problems associated with injuries and low productivity.
     Production supervisors, often the first ones to hear worker complaints, looked for patterns and realized changes were needed in a few specific areas of the plant. For instance, areas of the paint line - where grilles and registers are manually attached to a moving track headed into a painting shed - were raised to reduce bending and reaching.
     Elsewhere, jigs on the welders were lowered to allow employees to work with their arms at a more comfortable level between waist and chest high, rather than with their arms continuously at chest level.
     Meanwhile, some of the factory's dies and equipment were redesigned to increase the automation and decrease the repetitive manual labor that workers used in handling the pieces of steel and aluminum.
     Shoemaker also started to cross-train workers so they could rotate jobs during the day, decreasing the likelihood of strains and sprains from prolonged, repeated movements.
     The results have been significant. Because of fewer workers' compensation claims, Shoemaker's L&I premiums in 1999 dropped to $169,000. When final figures are computed for calendar year 2000, the company expects to have reduced its premiums even further.
     Fewer injuries have meant less turnover, less retraining, higher morale - and increased productivity.
     It all becomes a win-win situation, says general manager Low. Now, he says, when improved productivity is a goal, "we also look at the ergonomics, the employee exposure." If the goal is simply to work faster and increase production, "you will have problems on the other side," he says, referring to musculoskeletal injuries.
     The net impact on Shoemaker in these instances is positive, says Low, given the increased production, along with reduced injuries and lessened employee turnover.
     Low says reducing employee turnover is particularly important in Cle Elum, where the labor pool is much more restricted than what's found in metropolitan areas on the west side of the state.
     "The employees you've got - you'd better take care of them," says Low.

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Ergo nomics: one mill's story
Port Townsend Paper sees a dramatic drop in injuries

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Story reprinted, with permission, from the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, Feb. 28, 2001. For more about the publication, go to

By Steve Pierce
Special to the DJC

    Improving worker safety can be as easy as poking a hole in a paper bag - literally.

    Port Townsend Paper Corp. found that punching holes in the bottom of large baler bags provided an air-pressure escape route as the bags were filled with tight-fitting bundles of paper sacks. Workers didn't have to use as much force to fill the baler bags, reducing stress on their wrists, arms, shoulders and backs.
    That simple innovation is one of many the pulp and paper mill has instituted in ergonomics, defined as the science and practice of designing jobs or workplaces to match the capabilities and limitations of the human body.
    The mill's ergonomics-safety program, using what it calls "earliest intervention," has paid off in a sharp reduction in injuries and related expenses, and in improved morale, says Richard Marshall, supervisor for health and safety at the plant, which employs 500 people. It also paid off in a "Better Workplace Award" from the Association of Washington Business.
    "People say ergonomics costs you a lot of money. No. It saves you a lot of money," Marshall says.
    Case in point: After a "flex and stretch" program was introduced in the converting plant in 1997, where rolls of paper are converted into grocery bags and specialty sacks, days lost from worker injuries dropped from 368 in 1996 to 70 the next year.
    Case in point: After new vacuum-lift equipment, installed in 1996, effectively reduced the lifting weight of bundles from 60 pounds to about 15 pounds, back injuries - once the leading mishap - dropped to zero the next year in the converting plant.
    Marshall, the company's leading cheerleader for ergonomics safety, has plenty of "cases in point" and is proud of his program and what he calls the best job around: "I'm protecting people from injury. I'm saving the company money."
    Back strains and sprains, as well as other soft-tissue injuries such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, cripple and injure 50,000 workers each year in Washington and account for nearly half the costs of workers' compensation claims. The state Department of Labor & Industries estimates that these injuries cost employers more than $410 million a year in medical expenses and wage-replacement benefits. A new state ergonomics rule will provide guidelines employers need and a requirement to take action to protect their workers.
    At Port Townsend Paper, Marshall's approach is to let data lead him to the trouble spots. When he stepped into the health and safety job eight years ago, he looked at the mill's self-insurance claims, analyzing injuries by type, body part and cause. The data showed him that strains and sprains - often referred to as work-related musculoskeletal disorders - were a big issue in the converting plant: They accounted for 70 percent of the mill's claims and 80 percent of the costs.
    After forming an ergonomics team and analyzing jobs throughout the factory, the next step was to introduce a "flex and stretch" program in the converting plant.
    The voluntary program, in which each participant received a consultation with a physical trainer, had two incentives: The exercising was done on company time, and members of the team with the highest participation at the end of the year each received a $50 gift certificate to a local restaurant. By the third year, participation was nearly 100 percent (the company's annual cost of the gift-certificate incentive was about $4,000).
    The dramatic drop in lost days from work injuries was accompanied by similar impressive results in direct costs for lost time and medical expenses: They fell from $27,882 in 1996 to $4,342 in 1997.
    Interestingly, the "flex and stretch" program was curtailed in 1998 when it fell out of favor with a new converting-plant manager. The result: lost days soared to 711.
    That manager left the company, a new manager re-instituted "flex and stretch," and in 1999 the lost-days tally was back down to 37.
    "People say the reason it works is that it puts blood to the brain," says Marshall. "It increases awareness. It can be an accident preventer because people are more alert."
    He says people recognize after about two weeks of exercising that they're feeling better, and they tell coworkers. And morale improves. "You get a certain level of esprit de corps" from the group exercise times, Marshall says.
    The "flex and stretch" program teaches employees to come forward at the first sign of unusual pain or discomfort. Supervisors then refer them directly to a physical therapist for evaluation and therapy.
    Marshall's data also showed that 40 percent of the converting-plant injuries occurred at three machines where workers pushed bags through chutes.
    At a cost of less than $5,000, the company redesigned and repositioned the chutes to eliminate the 30 to 35 pounds of pressure needed to move bundles of paper sacks from a platform into a baler bag. It also asked a vendor who supplied the baler bags to poke holes in the bottom for air pressure to escape.
    The changes reduced the required pushing pressure to 10 to 15 pounds. Injuries dropped off sharply.
    A side benefit was that the changes - including other things such as moving a tape dispenser closer to a work station to reduce the reach - meant a gain of about 10 seconds in the time it took to fill a baler bag.
    "So we reduced our ergonomic strains and made a faster operation," Marshall says.
    Bob Lawton, with the Timber Operators Council, a forest-products industry group in Portland, lauds what he calls Port Townsend Paper's "salt of the earth" approach to ergonomics.
    "There's nothing fancy or magic about it," Lawton says, noting that Marshall effectively uses his data to help determine necessary ergonomic-safety measures, and to measure their effectiveness.
    "I get a sense that Port Townsend Paper is more innovative than others in some of the things they have been trying," Lawton says.
    A new weapon in Port Townsend Paper's war against musculoskeletal injuries is massage - something Marshall admits some employers consider a frill and unproved in the battle against strains and sprains.
    But, even after just three months of offering converting-plant employees one 15-minute massage a week, Marshall already is a believer. In addition to relieving tension and strains, workers are finding that the massage helps them identify trouble spots they're having but haven't yet reported - a sore shoulder, for instance. The massage therapy also is helping identify trouble spots workers weren't even aware of. Supervisors then can provide worker education, as well as get them in for early intervention. And the workers themselves can modify their behavior at their job stations.
    "That's not just touchy feely," says Marshall. "That's truly earliest intervention."
    He adds: "The money we're spending on chair massages is offset by the money we're saving on reduced injuries." The converting plant just completed 100 days without a recordable injury, and the count goes on. The previous record was 74 days.
    Meanwhile, Port Townsend Paper recently received a $43,000 grant from the Department of Labor & Industries to set up a computerized ergonomic-analysis program aimed at identifying how to set up a comprehensive ergonomics program to prevent musculoskeletal injuries. The program will produce a manual, CD-ROM and Web site - emphasizing survey and data analysis, training, stretching, "earliest intervention" and return-to-work strategies - that can be utilized by the pulp and paper industry statewide.

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Allyn firm among state leaders in voluntary ergonomics efforts

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Story reprinted, with permission, from the Business Examiner, Jan. 8, 2001. For more about the publication, go to

By Steve Pierce
For the Business Examiner

    Nineteen years ago, two repetitive-motion injuries ignited the ingenuity of a young company, Stretch Island Fruit in Allyn. Two workers operating a packaging machine day after day, week after week, began suffering pain in their wrists.
    Production manager Sally Simons saw the need for an ergonomic solution, even though she might not have called it by that scientific name back then. She began rotating the workers into other jobs throughout each shift, reducing their exposure to the repetitive motions.
    The company, whose 60 employees make fruit-leather snacks, has been aggressive ever since about preventing strains and sprains - the kinds of injuries that can lead to employee turnover, extra medical costs, lost-time claims, disruptions in production and the need to retrain employees. As a result, only one other worker has filed a claim for a repetitive-stress injury - and her condition appears to have started at a previous job.
    The newest centerpiece of Stretch Island's ongoing ergonomics-safety program is an automated tray-stacking machine, a concoction of Phil Harris, the company's I-can-fabricate-anything mechanic. Workers put trays filled with fruit-leather bars onto a waist-level shelf and the computer-controlled machine deposits them on shelves in a four-foot-high metal cart that goes into a fruit dryer.
    The machine eliminates the need for workers to stoop repeatedly with the 10-pound trays as they fill up each cart's 92 shelves and reduces the likelihood of back strains and other soft-tissue injuries.
    "Use of the equipment has taken the job from a labor-intensive, back-breaking job to more of a quality-assurance job," says Simons, since workers have more time to monitor the product. The equipment also has increased the plant's capacity because it provided for more trays in each cart.
    Stretch Island Fruit is serious about ergonomics, which is defined as the science and practice of designing jobs or workplaces to match the capabilities and limitations of the human body. Among other things, it:

  • Invested three years in the design and construction of the tray-stacking equipment, eliminating one of the movements in the production process with the highest risk of injury.

  • Rotates production jobs every 45 minutes, providing variety in workers' movements or positions and, in the process, decreasing the likelihood of strains and sprains from prolonged, repetitious movements.

  • Attached rails to carts, making it easier to move them around the factory.

  • Attached wall railings where carts are stationed, reducing the incidents of pinched or injured fingers and hands.

  • Installed cushioned floor mats, helping to lessen body stresses that come from standing on a hard surface for long periods.

  • Rearranged work areas so boxes full of fruit leather, weighing up to 11.25 pounds, can be slid from one point to another instead of having to be lifted and moved.

  • Installed an automatic box-taping machine, eliminating the repetitive motions required in hand taping and freeing the workers to invest more in quality-assurance.

  • Conducts periodic meetings so workers can talk about safety or production issues. Though only five minutes each, these meetings enable the company to gather information quickly and supplement more detailed monthly discussions with employees.

It all makes good business sense, human-resources manager Donovan Russell says of efforts to keep employees ergonomically fit.
    "Turnover is not something you want," he says. "We're proud to point out that we have many long-time employees. We want to keep the job-injury rate low."
    That's why his company invests a good deal of its resources to provide extensive on-the-job training.
    Statewide, musculoskeletal injuries - typically sprains, strains, muscle tears and back problems - cripple and injure 50,000 workers each year and account for nearly half the costs of workers' compensation claims. Washington's Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) estimates that employers' annual costs for medical expenses and wage-replacement benefits amount to more than $410 million.
    Stretch Island's goal is to be in line with the new state ergonomics standards that begin taking effect in July 2002. For companies that have not yet put in place programs to protect workers from sprain and strain hazards, the regulations will provide the guidelines for action to protect their workers and a mandate that action be taken.
    "Stretch Island Fruit is a great example of businesses that long have recognized that the work their employees do can lead to injuries, and have made necessary changes in the workplace," says Gary Moore, L&I director. "Unfortunately, many businesses are not doing anything to protect workers from such injuries."
    In fact, many of them are outright opposed to the new standards, contending the state agency has failed to produce credible scientific data to support its ergonomics regulations.
    "Other states proposing ergonomics standards have faced fierce resistance and the rules have been put on hold while they are challenged in court or killed outright by their legislatures," wrote one critic. "The federal OSHA proposed rule is also flailing, with Congress staunchly opposing it. As it stands, Washington is the only state preparing to implement an ergonomics rule. Is there something wrong with this picture?"
    Yet Michael Boehme, quality-assurance manager at Stretch Island Fruit, says the company cranked up its attention to the issue about a year ago, when the new state ergonomics regulations were in draft form. The company is now preparing to assess each job for hazards, as specified in the rule, which was adopted last May.
    The company's ergonomics-safety program will continue to evolve, not only in response to changes in regulations but also to suggestions from employees, he says. Other changes are the result of consultation with experts such as Chuck Holmquist, an L&I risk-management specialist in Tumwater.
    "We've never looked at safety as a one-time thing," says Boehme.

(Steve Pierce is a public information officer with the state Department of Labor & Industries.)

Son now CEO of firm parents helped found

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Stretch Island Fruit is a family owned business. Founded in 1977 by Ron and Mary Sagerson and two partners who subsequently were bought out, the firm initially made fruit leather in their home dehydrators. Their son, Bob, is chief executive officer.
    The company started with five or six employees working four- to five-hour shifts, and now has 60 employees working shifts from 7 a.m. to midnight five days a week. It produces about 2 million pieces of fruit leather a month.
    The company makes eight flavors of dried-fruit bars.
    It added a second line of bars made from organically grown fruit in 1990.
    No sweeteners, colors, extenders or preservatives are added to any of the company's products, which are handled by a variety of marketers, including Safeway, Fred Meyer and REI, and recently received USDA approval for school-lunch programs.
    The company's sales are mainly national but a portion of the revenue comes from scattered international markets.
    For more information about the company, visit its website at .

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Employers better learn about this law before it becomes a real pain

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Story reprinted, with permission, from the Wenatchee Business Journal, February 2001. For more about the journal, go to

By Bud McKay

East Wenatchee's Dole Northwest has gotten a jump on the ergonomics game.

Ergonomics is the science and practice of designing jobs or workplaces to match the capabilities and limitations of the human body. Washington Department of Labor & Industries adopted a workplace ergonomics rule in May designed to reduce work-related musculoskeletal disorders, such as back strain, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
    Last year, Dole Northwest started looking at its own ergonomics program, mainly for the more than 250 people who work the packing lines at its warehouse. As a result of taking action on one of its findings, Dole Northwest may have saved itself nearly a half-million dollars in injury claims alone from July to December, according to Tina Livingston, Dole Northwest's senior human resources coordinator.
    With the help of WorkCare of Wenatchee, Dole Northwest opened an on-site health center, operated four hours a day, three days a week by WorkCare. Instead of packing-line workers missing work and making an expensive Department of Labor and Industry's injury claim by seeing a private doctor, the on-site health center can treat nearly any work-related injury and come up with changes to help reduce further injuries.
    "They aren't there to treat or diagnosis cancer or anything like that - they treat occupational type of injuries," Livingston said. "From July to December, we had a total of 94 visits to the health center. We don't know if all 94 would have resulted in L&I reportable injuries, but if they had, the cost of the claims would have been around $470,000."
    Another thing Dole Northwest began doing for ergonomics is shutting down the packing lines for about a minute every half-hour for a stretching program.
    "The supervisors come out and lead the people on the line in stretching exercises," Livingston said. "They'll mainly stretch their backs, legs and arms."
    Livingston credits Dole Northwest's stretching program, job rotations, safety committees and the on-site health center with reducing L&I claims in 2000 by nearly half of 1999 claims.
    "We had 59 claims in 1999 and 31 in 2000," she said. "We did this program on our own to try to reduce the L&I claims and the amount of money we had to spend."
    The state's Labor Department's ergonomics rule sets minimum safety requirements that apply to employers with "caution zone jobs." Each business, large or small, must study each job to see if an employee's typical work includes any of the physical risk factors spelled out in the rule. One example is lifting objects weighing more than 25 pounds above the shoulders, below the knees or at arm's length more than 25 times per day.
    The requirements of the rule are phased in over a period of years. How long depends on the size and type of the business.
    Initially, the rule will focus on larger employers (50 or more full-time equivalent workers) in 12 high-risk industries of work-related musculoskeletal injury. Some of the 12 are grocery stores, general contractors, trucking courier services and sawmills and planing mills.
    The group of larger employers will have until July 1, 2002, to complete awareness education and hazard analysis and until July 1, 2003, to complete the hazard reduction. Smaller employers, with fewer than 10 full-time employees, have until July 2005 to complete awareness education and hazard analysis and until July 2006 to complete hazard reductions.
    Gil Sparks, a Wenatchee lawyer who specializes in employment law issues at Ogden, Murphy and Wallace, said business owners should already begin learning how the ergonomics rules will impact their businesses.
    "If you haven't seen it, you will be inundated with this information over the next several months on WISHA's (Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act) and OSHA's (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) ergonomic rules," Sparks said at the Jan. 18 Apple Valley Human Resource Association meeting at the Wenatchee Center.
    "You need to get educated on this because it's going to be a very difficult regulatory arena in terms of ergonomics because if someone has what is called an MSD (musculoskeletal disorder) incident, depending on the severity of it, you could have to provide employees up to 90 days paid time off," said Sparks.
    The Federal OSHA's ergonomics rule took effect Jan. 16. However, businesses in Washington will follow the state's ergonomics rule. Within the state, the OSHA rule only applies to federal agencies, post offices and employers on federal reservations.
    In November, then President Bill Clinton pushed through OSHA's ergonomics legislation. Soon after, lawsuits were filed against the government from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Society for Human Resource Management and other groups seeking to block the rules.
    Critics of the rule claim Clinton pushed the legislation through before President George W. Bush's administration could scale back or eliminate it. Bush's staff plans to review all rules put into effect in the last days of Clinton's administration.
    However, a Jan. 18 U.S. Department of Labor news release about the National Academy of Sciences' review of ergonomics said the review should end any questions about the value of ergonomics programs.
    "The 2001 (National Academy of Sciences') review, prepared by 19 distinguished scientists, also lays to rest any remaining questions about the value of ergonomics programs in preventing these injuries," said Charles Jeffress, assistant secretary of labor under Clinton. "The scientists conclude that ergonomic interventions need to be tailored to specific work and worker conditions. They further state that 'to be effective, intervention programs should include employee involvement, employer commitment and the development of integrated programs that address equipment design, work procedures, and organization characteristics.' "
    According to Steve Pierce, with the public affairs office for the Washington Department of Labor & Industries, no legal action has been taken to stop Washington's ergonomics rule.
    Some Wenatchee Valley businesses are trying to take a proactive stand on ergonomics by seeing where they stand with the state ergonomic standards.
    "In October, we had WorkCare come out and do a full ergonomics inspection on us," said Greg Stone, a controller with Wenatchee's Van Doren Sales. "It was more of a precautionary step for us. We've always had a good safety record, but we just wanted a third party to come in give us an objective report. We didn't have to do any major changes."
    WorkCare charges $100 to $150 an hour for an inspection, according to Bruce Williams of WorkCare. Williams said when he does an inspection, he spends most of his time talking with the hourly employees and supervisors with jobs that require excessive, repetitive motions, lifting of heavy weights, using excessive force or working in awkward positions.
    "I'll look over the injury records, too, to see if there's been a pattern of injuries in a certain area and usually will make a recommendation on a few, simple changes," Williams said. "I try to recommend low-cost changes, but I offer the cheapest to most expensive - most effective to less effective - fix."

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Zirkle Fruit serious about workplace issues

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By Steve Pierce
Special to YVBJ

At Zirkle Fruit Co., there are right ways (translation: no injuries) and wrong ways (translation: injuries) to sort and pack apples.
    For instance, take the spot where cardboard trays loaded with a dozen or more shiny red, yellow or green apples are lifted from a conveyor belt and put into a packing box.
    The right way: wait for the tray to reach the end of the belt, cradle it in both hands and lower it into the box.
    The wrong way: bend and reach for a tray before it arrives at the end of the belt, pull it toward you by using a pinch grip on each side, then lower it into the box. The result: possible strains or sprains to the back, shoulders, fingers and hands.
    For the Yakima-area fruit-growing and packing company, ergonomics - the science and practice of designing jobs or workplaces to match the capabilities and limitations of the human body - only makes sense.
    If workers on the tray-fill and packing line are injured, Zirkle could face medical and lost-time expenses, and perhaps worker turnover and retraining, not to mention lower morale.
    "Ergonomics is a serious consideration for us," says Gary Hudson, human-resources manager. "Back injuries are the biggest thing in a warehouse."
    The family owned business, founded in the 1950s, is a third-generation grower and shipper of Washington state apples.
    Bill Zirkle is president. A son, Mark, is warehouse production manager, and another son, Les, is manager for orchard operations.
    Rainier Fruit Sales, also owned and operated by the Zirkles, is the exclusive sales agency for Zirkle Fruit Co., as well as for other growers and packers in the region.
    The company has gone through significant expansions in capacity and facilities in 1989 and again in 1994.
    Employers throughout the state will be paying more attention to ergonomics because of new rules adopted in May by the Department of Labor & Industries.
    The rules provide guidelines and requirements for protecting workers from musculoskeletal injuries - typically bone and soft-tissue ailments such as sprains, strains, muscle tears and back problems.
    Such injuries cripple and injure 50,000 workers each year in Washington, and account for nearly half the costs of workers' compensation claims.
    L&I estimates that employers annually face costs of more than $410 million for medical expenses and wage-replacement benefits.
    Zirkle Fruit, which has operated apple orchards and a packing warehouse since the 1950s, isn't waiting for the rules to take effect before addressing ergonomics with its employees.
    It agreed to participate in a University of Washington ergonomics study that was completed in 1999, and quickly implemented several of its recommendations.
    And in mid-2000, Zirkle conducted a series of hour-long "Body Mechanics" workshops for its workers, covering the correct use of body posture to avoid unnecessary injuries.
    To prepare for the workshops, Jackie Earl, an occupational therapist with Cascade Summit WorkForce in Yakima, went to Zirkle Fruit, observed workers, took photographs, and noted problem areas.
    Using pictures of the actual workers during the workshops allowed them to really connect with the training, which was done in both English and Spanish, Earl said.
    "By the end of the sessions, they were coming up with examples of things they knew were wrong and coming up with their own solutions."
    Hudson, too, has seen instances in which workers, increasingly aware of ergonomics, have suggested solutions to problems they've identified. When some larger-than-usual plastic crates were used for a new customer, workers had trouble stacking the 40- to 50-pound boxes eight high on each pallet.
    They suggested the company build a small platform, about two feet off the ground, reducing the lift and stretch required to place the top boxes.
    Zirkle has done a number of other things to protect its workers from musculoskeletal injuries. Among them:

It narrowed some of its fruit-sorting tables, and lowered some of the conveyor belts above those tables, to reduce the extended reach that might produce stress on the shoulder joint and back.

It re-evaluated its grading system for some of its "peeler" and "juicer" apples headed to apple-juice makers, lessening the quantity of apples that had to be sorted and, therefore, reducing the amount of repetitive arm and shoulder movements for sorters.

It added foot rails in some areas, increasing pelvic tilt which might reduce some of the stress on the lower back and reduce the fatigue in the legs and feet.

It purchased anti-fatigue mats, which can reduce pain or discomfort in the feet, knees, legs, hips or back caused by standing on hard surfaces for long periods of time.

It instituted regular and frequent rotation between jobs on the premise that the use of different muscle groups may reduce cumulative stress to over-used body areas.

It built 2- to 6-inch-high movable work platforms to allow workers to customize their work area - benefiting, for instance, a short person who had to reach farther and higher alongside a conveyor belt.

It replaced stationary chairs with swivel chairs on an apple-bagging line, allowing workers to more easily turn to deposit a sealed bag onto a conveyor belt.

It purchased an automated palletizer to eliminate much of the need for workers to lift the heavy boxes onto pallets.

Gary Moore, director of the Department of Labor & Industries, says the company is on the right track.
    "Businesses such as Zirkle recognize there can be a correlation between what workers do on the job and injuries they incur, and that it's in their best interests to address it. Unfortunately, many businesses are doing nothing significant to protect workers from injuries such as back strain, tendinitis and carpal-tunnel syndrome," Moore said.
    At Zirkle, the next step will be to finish up an ergonomics work-site-evaluation form, and to use it companywide to pinpoint possible hazards for each job. Also planned is training for in-house supervisors, so they can carry the torch for good ergonomic practices.
    "If a company isn't doing ergonomics right now, they're going to have their work cut out for them," said Hudson.
    "It looks to me like ergonomics is going to have to become one of the values of a company."

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Library already grasps the new ergonomics law

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From the Everett Business Journal, February 2001. For more about the journal, go to

By Steve Pierce

Handling library books - there's not much in that activity that can cause an on-the-job injury for library workers, right?
    Picking up one lone library book might not pose a problem, but pile a bunch of them into a carrying crate for delivery to another library branch and, bingo, there's potential for back strains from lifting.
    Or grab one book at a time with one hand, over and over throughout the day, and, ouch, you've got the makings for some wrist and finger problems.
    Administrators with Sno-Isle Regional Library System know from experience, and from reported injuries and workers' compensation claims, that their nearly 400 employees aren't immune from problems such as back strain, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. In a 20-branch system in which workers type at computer terminals, process thousands of new books each year, staff circulation/check-out desks and deliver truckloads of books throughout Snohomish and Island counties, these kinds of musculoskeletal injuries are sure to occur.
    For instance, Sno-Isle's data showed that from 1995 to 2000, wrist and back injuries accounted for 20 and 21 percent of its workers' compensation claims, respectively.
    About two years ago, officials of Sno-Isle Regional Library System, based in Marysville, began giving more attention to accident prevention and ergonomics, which is defined as the science of matching jobs and workplaces to the capabilities and limitations of the human body.
    A cornerstone of Sno-Isle's program is education - from training of new employees, to ongoing evaluations, to teaching supervisors about accident-prevention programs and ergonomics. Department of Labor & Industries specialists did on-site assessments, conducted workshops and provided safety materials, including several fact sheets specifically about risk factors for library jobs.
    "We took an awareness approach of risk factors," said Pat Olafson, human-resources manager.
    Sno-Isle's efforts are paying off, noted Paula Townsley, a human-resources coordinator who administers the health and safety programs. For instance, lifting/strain injuries - instances in which a reportable claim was filed with L&I - decreased 75 percent in 1999 from the previous year. During that same period, reportable repetitive-stress injuries dropped by 66 percent.
    The need to address work-related musculoskeletal injuries - typically sprains, strains, muscle tears and back problems - is driven by fact. According to L&I, Washington state employers' annual costs for medical expenses and wage-replacement benefits for workers with musculoskeletal injuries are more than $410 million. The injuries cripple and injure 50,000 workers in the state each year, and account for nearly half the costs of workers' compensation claims.
    To address the problem, a new state ergonomics standard begins taking effect in July 2002. For companies that have not yet put in place programs to protect workers from sprain and strain hazards, the ergonomics rule will provide the guidelines they need and a requirement to take action to protect their workers.
    Sno-Isle will be ahead of the pack when the time comes for it to be in compliance with the new standards. Based on its own analysis of needs, and in consultation with experts from L&I, here are a few steps the library system has taken to address ergonomics:

Many of the cardboard boxes used for transporting books from one site to another have been replaced with sturdier plastic bins that are easier to handle and stack, reducing the likelihood of back strains and other injuries. All boxes have a maximum weight limit of 35 pounds.

Information-technology staff members have been taught about ergonomics, making them more aware of the issue when they set up computer workstations.

Employees who shelve books have been shown how to properly handle a book with two hands, instead of using a one-handed pinch grasp that, if repeated often enough, can cause finger and wrist injuries. Instruction also has been provided on the correct use of footstools when shelving books.

Many library workers have a stretch-exercise program on their computers, which occasionally pops onto the screen to remind them to take a few moments to pause and stretch.

At the Mukilteo and Lynnwood library branches, self-checkout equipment has been installed, which reduces the amount of repetitive motions circulation staff members must go through to check out hundreds of books each day. Side benefits of the system are reduced waiting lines and efficiencies for library patrons and existing staff.

Smaller, lighter-weight dollies are now used for transporting boxes full of books and other heavy items. The reduced total weight, and better balanced dollies, puts less stress on workers' backs as they handle thousands of boxes each year - more than 300,000 boxes in 1999.

Two new delivery vans were ordered with doors that open to the side, instead of up and down like a garage door, for less stress on those who open and close the doors as many as 10 to 15 times a day.

Those and other changes and innovations at Sno-Isle have kept attention on injury prevention, rather than injury response.
    "We want our employees to come here and stay here," says Townsley, noting that they will stay "if we provide a safe, healthful work environment."

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Local plant earns recognition for thinking ahead

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Story reprinted, with permission, from The Skamania County Pioneer, Jan. 24, 2001.

By Skamania County Pioneer staff

Why would a company invest a lot of money and effort in ergonomics before the state and federal government made it a requirement?
    Ergonomics simply makes good business sense, said Bill Jobe, the human-resources and safety coordinator at Molded Fiber Glass Northwest's Stevenson plant.
    The company is based in Ashtabula, Ohio, and was first known for developing and building the fiberglass body for the Corvette.
    The local MFG plant hired an ergonomics specialist, Kevin Simonton, in 1998, before the requirement was even drafted. The company was "interested in reducing workplace injuries," as well as "making it better for the people here," said Jobe.
    In the company's sprawling Stevenson waterfront buildings leased from the Port of Skamania County, local workers assemble sleek custom cabovers for Freightliner, a Portland manufacturer of semi-truck bodies.
    Semi sleepers can be as well-equipped as a motorhome and have a refrigerator, microwave, television or sound system, as well as a bed.
    MFG assembles the various components but doesn't mold the fiberglass here or install the custom accessories. When the cabovers leave Stevenson for Portland, the various models are ready to install.
    Assembly requires intensive hands-on labor putting together the unwieldy shapes and sizes, gluing, finishing and painting the fiberglass cabovers to a flawless shine.
    MFG's ergonomics measures have been as simple as improving a de-roping tool often used by painters and as spendy as the $1.5 million Freightliner spent on a custom drill station for the Stevenson plant.
    A scraping tool used to remove excess material at seams, the de-ropers used to have a flat handle rather like a putty knife.
    Robert Laws, an MFG safety trainer in Stevenson, talked to several companies before coming up with a redesigned tool with a more comfortable padded handle, plus a double edge that reduces the need for body contortions while using it.
    It's one small example of the reason MFG has been cited by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries as a model of how to reduce injuries in the workplace.
    "The company has done a number of things in ergonomics, such as installing adjustable tables, building special platforms for workers, and instituting job rotations," said Steve Pierce of L&I's public affairs department.
    The idea is to "make the work fit the person," Jobe said. An L&I loss consultant, Chuck Holmquist, also came to Stevenson and looked at the operation.
    Now MFG has designated a company-wide ergonomics person, Cathleen LaVecchia, who will be "extending our program" to other plant locations, said Jobe.
    The Stevenson operation has "a basic plan in place at this point," but it will be tweaked and refined, he said.
    During a walk through the plant, it's evident that some ergonomics improvements have also resulted in less wasted space and more efficient movement, increasing productivity.
    The old way of doing things Jobe called "mass producing. Now it's lean producing," he said.
    Next to Freightliner's $1.5 million drill station, which moves parts into position by pushing a button rather than heavy lifting, is an example of a simple improvement.
    At several locations, there are now adjustable-height tables because "people are different sizes," said Jobe. "It doesn't necessarily take a big capital investment."
    The tables were made in-house, as MFG takes advantage of the talents of Kevin Matta, proclaimed the "maintenance wizard" by Jobe.
    During a tour of the plant, Matta was working on a prototype glue boom. The boom will "keep lines off the floor where you can trip over them, and it will be easier to support, less strain on arms and shoulders," said Jobe.
    The quality-control station has been moved to the sanding area, where there is now a system of sturdy scaffolding on all sides of the assembled cabovers, rather than doing the work from a ladder.
    "We used to have to move the cabs. This saves five to 10 minutes, and there's less chance of tripping or twisting an ankle," said Jobe.
    In the paint room, there's also scaffolding and a paint trolley that slides from point to point. "That takes the weight off the shoulders," said Jobe. There's a side benefit - the trolley system helps prevent smears and improves the appearance of the cabs.
    Another important element in plant health and safety is a dust-collection and noise-reduction system.
    In the break room, Jobe and Laws point proudly to a chart on the bulletin board. It shows there have been no accidents so far this fiscal year, which began Aug. 31.
    Workers compensation insurance rates are based on a national average per occupation plus the company's injury rate.
    A lower injury rate means lower premiums, a good incentive to reduce worker down-time in high-risk industries.
    MFG's injury rate the first year it opened the Stevenson plant in 1996 was 30 percent, not uncommon in a place with a small workforce with not a lot of hours, said Jobe.
    Last fiscal year, the injury rate was 8.31 percent, and "we're trying to get it below 5 percent," said Jobe. When injuries do occur, they are usually strains and sprains to wrists, arms and shoulders, he said.
    Right now, MFG has one shift working, 25 as opposed to a peak of more than 90 employees.
    That's the result of Freightliner laying off 760 workers because gas prices, higher interest rates and a shortage of truck drivers mean fewer orders for new trucks.
    MFG expects things to turn around as early as April, when the 2001 Freightliner models roll out. The local plant is looking at diversifying, manufacturing other products.
    Corporate headquarters in Ohio recently manufactured and installed an 860-foot fiberglass church steeple. The company's other locations also make hatch covers for railroad hopper cars, as well as construction and water-treatment products.
    On the Stevenson plant's five bulletin boards are the ubiquitous OSHA and WISHA notices. "We go by what Washington says, but we still have to look at both," said Jobe.
    He says that plant manager Bob Kelso has been "really involved" in MFG's safety push - "It takes a lot of help and cooperation."
    In several state inspections, MFG has done quite well. "We've had a few minor violations, but on the whole, we're doing what we're supposed to."

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