ELECTION RECOMMENDATION: Voters should OK initiative repealing ergonomic rules

The News Tribune


Washington State - Unlike any ballot measure in recent memory, Initiative 841 pits the state's employers vs. their employees. Its list of supporters is a Who's Who in Washington business - among them Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, builders, supermarkets and the Association of Washington Business. It is opposed by Gov. Gary Locke and state and local labor unions.

I-841 would overturn state rules designed by the Department of Labor & Industries to prevent ergonomic injuries to workers. These injuries are usually caused by heavy lifting, repetitive motion and awkward work positions. The state estimates that such on-the-job injuries - about 50,000 annually - account for 30 percent of workman's compensation claims and cost $411 million a year in medical expenses and wage replacement.

I-841 supporters argue that L&I's regulations, which go into effect in 2005, could cost state businesses hundreds of millions to implement at a time when many of them are barely surviving. And because Washington would be the only state with such comprehen-sive ergonomics regulations, new business would be discouraged from locating here. They say the regulations are vague, and that L&I's response to questions about them have been contra-dictory and confusing.

The pro-initiative camp probably exaggerates the difficulty and cost of implementing the rules and overemphasizes industry's commitment to voluntary improvements to worker safety. Still, The News Tribune concludes that voters should approve the initiative and send the message that L&I should find other ways to improve working conditions. Burdening all employers - even those committed to worker safety - with a confusing and possibly costly layer of regulation is not the best way to target those employers and industries with the worst safety records. And it's not the right message to send at a time when key business leaders are calling for less, not more, regulation if the state is to become more competitive economically.

A better approach is to offer employers more demonstration models and input into how they can modify workplaces to im-prove safety. And the state should use existing powers to come down even harder on those employers who continue to experience high rates of worker injury.

Many businesses have been slow to get on board with the idea that small adjustments in the workplace - such as modifying a work station or tool or providing equipment to lift heavy objects - can have big payoffs in healthier employees and lower worker compensation rates. L&I tried to address that problem with com-prehensive rules, when the depart-ment would have been better off homing in on the worst offenders.

I-841 has one badly misguided provision: In addition to repealing the ergonomics regulations, I-841 also would prohibit L&I from future ergonomic-related rule-making. That seems punitive rather than constructive - the very thing the initiative's backers accuse L&I 's ergonomic regulations of being.


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