New ergonomics rules aim to cut
By KATHY DAY
July 1, 2002, may seem like a long way off, but companies facing new rules for workplace ergonomics may find it arriving a lot sooner than they expected.
The new rules, enacted May 26, require employers to follow specific guidelines designed to protect workers from injury. They’re being phased in over the next couple of years.
According to the state Department of Labor and Industries, which is charged with enforcing the new rules, on-the-job injuries can have a "devastating impact on workers’ lives and livelihoods."
The cardinal signs and symptoms can include pain, motor weakness, sensory deficits and restrictions in range of motion. The targeted injuries include those involving soft tissues such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, blood vessels and nerves.
"These things are accumulated over time — not the specific traumatic injury" from an accident, Cameron Fischer, a state safety consultant, said during a recent workshop for employers.
They’re also injuries that often are ignored when they first surface, said an occupational therapist whose job is to help get people back to work after they’ve been diagnosed with a work-related injury.
Staceec Minyard of HealthSouth’s Hoyt Avenue clinic in Everett said that as she interviews patients and "digs into their past," she often finds they’ve been suffering for a long time.
They’ve been "in pain, not sleeping, dropping things or having trouble showering or washing their hair because it hurts, for as long as six months" before informing supervisors, she said.
About 80 percent of the patients she treats have some sort of work-related injury, and about 65 percent to 70 percent of those have repetitive motion or cumulative trauma injuries.
Fischer says while most people think of computers as the major culprit, that’s not necessarily true. Workers most likely to sustain muscular or skeletal injuries are those whose jobs require lifting heavy loads or performing repetitive motions over extended time periods.
In Washington alone, such job injuries prompt more than 50,000 claims a year, costing more than $410 million in direct costs for treatment and lost time. Associated costs raise that to more than $1 billion. That makes them the largest category of injuries and illnesses affecting Washington workers.
Initially, the new state rules will affect companies with 50 or more employees in 12 industries where the injuries occur most often, such as construction.
In Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties, that’s about 80 employers, said Bob Zulke of Labor and Industries. Statewide, there are about 600 such employers, but the "second wave" of companies with 11 to 49 workers will be much larger, he added.
A study estimates that implementing the new rules will cost large employers about $28 per employee, and small ones about $31.
"We don’t expect you to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment," Fischer said. "You need to think about options like job rotation. The intent is to see if there’s a way to reduce the hazard."
In some cases, use of a $100 power screwdriver might help prevent an elbow injury that could cost $4,000, he noted during his recent presentation.
The rules cover companies with "caution zone jobs."
For example, a person who works with hands above the head or elbows above the shoulder for more than two hours a day, such as a drywall installer, falls into the "awkward posture" classification, as does a sawmill green-chain puller who grabs new lumber and stacks it.
If companies don’t have jobs in the caution zone, they need not worry about adhering to new rules, Fischer said. If companies do have such jobs, they must meet two requirements:
If they determine hazards are present, they move to another level of the rules and must reduce the hazard "to the degree economically and technologically feasible."
Employers like Rick Stewart of GBC Contractors Inc. in Tukwila, one of only three employers who attended the state agency’s recent workshop, are concerned that some jobs can’t be changed.
"How can you take a carpenter and rotate his job every two hours? He’s doing the same motion. If he’s not building something, he’s tearing it down," he said.
Diana Arenz, regional industrial coordinator for HealthSouth, said solutions other than job rotation could include strengthening and conditioning programs.
The stronger and better-conditioned employee with a higher reserve can often tolerate more and can perhaps delay or avoid tissue damage from repetitive motions, she said.
Arenz encourages employers to "take a little money now to save time later because it costs more to deal with the claims, retrain and hire."
While GBC’s Stewart has some concerns about the new regulations, he said he sees the benefit in reducing injuries. Over the past five years, repetitive motion injuries to workers’ wrists have accounted for 6.6 percent of GBC’s injury claims and 28.6 percent of its costs.
Eric Fritch of Fritch Forest Products in Clearview said he wants to do what he can to reduce injuries. But he’s concerned about the potential for conflict if and when the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration comes up with its own rules.
"The proposed (federal) rules are so ill conceived and conflicting that they couldn’t be implemented," Fritch said.
They’re the subject of congressional debate, with the Clinton administration pushing for passage by year’s end and the GOP majority trying to delay the rules until next year, when they hope a Republican White House would be more sympathetic to business.
But Fischer said state guidelines are unlikely to be affected because the federal proposal would require only that the state be "at least as effective."
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