Business coalition sues state over ergonomic rules

Associated Press

OLYMPIA — A coalition of state business groups and employers sued the state Wednesday over sweeping new workplace ergonomic rules designed to protect workers from injury. The lawsuit argues that the rules place a staggering burden on employers for dubious benefit to workers.

The lawsuit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court by a group calling itself Washington Employers Concerned about Regulating Ergonomics, claims the rules written by the Department of Labor and Industries are arbitrary, capricious and exceed the department’s authority.

"This is clearly a case of a state agency abusing its power and pushing through a rule based on political agendas," said Tom McCabe, president of the Building Industry Association of Washington. "The only way to stop them is through the court process."

State officials contend the regulations — enthusiastically backed by labor unions — are long overdue and could prevent thousands of injuries a year. The department has no plans to rescind or revise the regulations, director Gary Moore said.

"We’re very confident that the ergonomics rules will reduce workplace injuries and reduce employer costs," Moore said.

The department receives 50,000 claims a year from injured workers, claims that cost employers more than $400 million.

"That’s a huge toll of pain and suffering and lost productivity," Moore said.

The rules, to be phased in over six years beginning July 1, 2002, require employers to identify tasks that are likely to cause back strain, repetitive stress and other musculoskeletal injuries.

Businesses — starting with sawmills, building trades and other industries that report the highest number of injuries — must take steps to lower the risks by buying new equipment, repositioning existing equipment or providing ergonomic training.

Major employer groups say the rules will cost them $725 million a year, with owners and operators of blue-collar companies bearing the brunt of the costs.

Proposals to delay implementation of the rules died in the closely divided Legislature this year.

The lawsuit also challenges the effectiveness of the ergonomic techniques spelled out in the rules.

"L&I has relentlessly pushed its rules to prevent workplace injuries despite a lack of evidence that any of these standards will actually result in a reduction of these so-called ergonomic injuries and mounting evidence that some of the most long-held and widely believed tenets of ergonomics prevention are actually worthless," said Carolyn Logue, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Moore dismissed that objection, noting that many businesses have found ergonomics cost-effective without government prompting.

"There are many employers that have already put ergonomics in place," Moore said. "They don’t want their employees to be injured."

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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