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Ergonomics

ERGONOMICS/17inches/1stjc/mark2nd

HOWARD FINE

Orange County Business Journal

It’s Round Three on the ergonomics battlefront, with the state proposing a new rule that for the first time makes a connection between word processing jobs and repetitive motion injuries.

And it’s beginning to look as though this battle will ultimately be decided in the courts, since both labor and employer organizations have threatened lawsuits if the rule takes effect.

“These changes are merely cosmetic,” said Tom Rankin, president of the California Labor Federation. “This will not address the concerns of workers. We are still going to court on this if it passes as it is now written.”

The California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board last month issued the revisions for public review after a panel of state judges rejected an earlier ergonomics proposal in January as too vague.

While the revised proposal still exempts employers with fewer than 10 employees who account for 80 percent of the state’s businesses it broadens the scope of repetitive motion injuries for the larger employers.

The standards board must resubmit the regulation to the panel of judges at the state Office of Administrative Law by mid-May.

If the panel approves the rule, it could take effect by the end of June, assuming there is no court injunction placed on the rule first.

Under both the original and the revised rule, any place of employment with 10 or more workers at which two or more employees have been diagnosed with repetitive motion injuries must implement a program to reduce those injuries.

Among the changes the board made to satisfy a panel of judges at the state Office of Administrative Law:

– For the first time, the tasks of word processing, assembly and loading are specifically mentioned in connection with repetitive motion injuries.

Business opponents of the regulation contend that this legitimizes a causal factor that has not been scientifically proven.

– A previous requirement that injurious repetitive motion activity had to occur “at the workplace” has been eliminated. While the injury must still be predominantly work-related, there is no explicit requirement that the injury occur at the workplace.

Opponents of the rule say this will allow for non-work-related injuries to trigger costly workplace remedies.

“The result of these changes is a regulation that forces a costly response from employers while failing to assure the prevention of a single injury,” said Shirley Knight, assistant state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Another business group, the California Trucking Association, has said it may file a lawsuit if any ergonomics regulation goes into effect.

Labor interests, on the other hand, dismiss the changes as insignificant and maintain the rule does not go nearly far enough in protecting the health of workers.

The original mandate for the ergonomics rule was a little-noticed insert in the massive 1993 workers’ compensation reforms.

After the Cal-OSHA Standards Board rejected an ergonomics proposal in 1994 as too harsh, labor interests went to state court and won an order forcing the board to implement the mandate by December of last year.

California is the only state that has an ergonomics mandate on the books; however, the federal government is currently considering a national ergonomics standard.

The NFIB, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Manufacturers Association and other business groups have in the past backed legislation to repeal the mandate requiring an ergonomics rule.

Last year, a measure to repeal the mandate was carried by state Sen. Ross Johnson, R-Newport Beach; it passed the Republican-controlled state Assembly, but was killed in the Democrat-controlled state Senate.

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