L&I releases files on ergonomics inspections



Olympia, WA - Responding to a court order, the Department of Labor and Industries released records Monday on ergonomic inspections that employers had requested to see where their work sites might need improvement.
L&I had refused to disclose the records of the agency's consultations, saying the publicity would discourage employers from asking L&I for help in bringing them into compliance with the new rules.

But Thurston County Superior Court Judge Paula Casey ruled that these inspections are public record, and last week she ordered L&I to release them without blacking out any portions.

The Building Industry Association, Allied Daily Newspapers and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association sued the agency for release of the records.

The dispute stems from a letter L&I Director Gary Moore wrote to Wal-Mart after he visited the retail giant's food-distribution center in Texas. In the letter, Moore states the operation he observed would require no corrections under Washington's ergonomic rules.

BIAW officials took the statement to mean that Wal-Mart would get a free pass under the new rules, and they wanted to see whether other businesses were getting special treatment, said Tim Ford, BIAW legal counsel.

"We think that it's important for us to know and the public to know which companies got exemptions," Ford said.

But an agency representative assailed BIAW's claim that L&I was playing favorites.

"That's a massive amount of c--- being circulated by the BIAW," L&I spokesman Robert T. Nelson said. "It's rhetoric."

L&I offers consulting services to employers of every size, Nelson said. If an employer asks to be inspected, an L&I agent will ferret out ergonomic flaws and violations without citing that employer.

L&I promised confidentiality to employers who approached the agency in good faith and, understandably, didn't want their ergonomic defects publicized, Nelson said.

This voluntary program is the best way to get employers to comply and to make the workplace safer, he said. With more than 160,000 employers in the state, L&I can't inspect them all, he said.

The agency has amassed a box-load of documents outlining the consultations.

Some examples:

- In Yelm, a Keystone Masonry worker was observed lifting 20 bags of mortar daily that weighed as much as 94 pounds each, putting the work in "the caution zone."

- At Shaub Ellison Co. in Olympia, an employee was described as lifting many tires that weigh more than 10 pounds. Such work done at that rate becomes a "risk factor" after two hours, the agency said.

- In Shelton, Simpson Timber Co. workers rotated tasks on the veneer line every two hours to prevent repetitive motion. The method of rotation is adequate though not ideal, L&I observed.

- An employee at Harbor Wholesale Grocery lifted objects weighing more than 25 pounds at arm's length and below the knees. L&I suggested that a supervisor check several workers during a shift to make sure they aren't feeling strained.

Employers must begin fixing the problems on the spot, Nelson said. And L&I can cite them if other violations are reported later.

Nelson said the BIAW's pushing for disclosure is another attempt to defeat the ergonomic rules.

The BIAW has filed a separate lawsuit claiming L&I had underestimated the costs of complying with the rules and used questionable science in forming the standards.

Ford said the record-disclosure case has nothing to do with the BIAW's efforts to repeal the regulations. Any ammunition it gathers in the records case can't be used in the other lawsuit, he said.

L&I is cutting Wal-Mart slack on ergonomics as part of a workers' compensation settlement, Ford said.

The agency had threatened to revoke Wal-Mart's right to run its own workers' compensation program after employees complained of being unfairly denied benefits. In the end, the company was allowed to remain self-insured, but it gave up the right to administer its own claims for eight years.

L&I also gave Wal-Mart until July 2004 to comply with the ergonomic rules, according to an agency letter.

"This whole Wal-Mart deal didn't really pass the sniff test," Ford said.


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