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VDT Safety Rules Backed by S.F. Board : Health: If enacted, the measure--strenuously opposed by businesses--would become the first adopted by any city in the nation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Over the business community’s strenuous objections, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Monday gave preliminary approval to a groundbreaking law that sets safety rules for the use of video display terminals in the workplace.

If the measure passes a second vote, scheduled for next Monday, and is signed into law by Mayor Art Agnos, San Francisco will become the first city in the nation to have VDT regulations. Late last year, a similar law in Suffolk County, N.Y., was challenged by business groups and overturned by a judge; that case is being appealed.

Proponents hailed Monday’s 8-1 vote as a victory for workers who use the ubiquitous computer terminals, which in recent years have been blamed for an increasing number of disabling hand, wrist and arm injuries and for eyestrain and headaches. Also of concern is low-level radiation from terminals, which some safety advocates contend causes cancer, miscarriages and birth defects.

“San Francisco has taken a very exciting step forward,” said Barbara Kellogg, an organizer with Local 790 of the Service Employees International Union in San Francisco.

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In a city already widely regarded as pro-labor and anti-business, the debate has once again pitted familiar adversaries against one another.

The legislation, which would become effective two years after passage, faces almost certain challenge from employers. Businesses have lobbied vociferously against it as an expensive, poorly thought-out measure that could impel some companies to set up shop elsewhere.

Drafted by a coalition of union officials, public health advocates and politicians, the ordinance would require companies with 15 or more employees to install adjustable chairs, desks and computer keyboards for VDT users. Office lighting would have to be changed to reduce glare from screens, and printers would have to be covered to reduce noise. Computer users would be assured of regular 15-minute breaks. The measure also would establish a panel that would immediately begin studying VDT safety issues.

When Supervisor Nancy Walker introduced the measure in August, she said she envisioned it as a model for other communities and even for the federal government. A computer user herself, she said at the time: “It makes me crazy that I can’t sit there for more than 10 minutes because my wrists start to hurt.”

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Spirited debate erupted among the supervisors even after an initial vote was taken Monday afternoon. Amendments were proposed, and two supervisors urged that the city come up with reliable estimates about how much the ordinance would cost city government. The board’s budget analyst, Harvey Rose, estimated those costs at $1.4 million to $3.6 million.

Walker responded that curbing the “escalating and outrageous cost” of worker compensation and disability would more than make up for the expense of upgrading workstations for city employees.

“This is prevention we’re talking about,” she said.

Over the last 17 months, scores of attempts to regulate VDT use have failed at the local, state and national levels. This is despite the fact that illnesses caused by repeated use of VDTs and other machines and tools accounted for 48% of all workplace ailments in private businesses in 1988, up from 18% in 1981.

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In New Jersey, a VDT safety measure is being studied by a state Assembly committee but is not likely to go before legislators for several months. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has said it expects to come up with regulations next year. The state regulations would take precedence over the San Francisco ordinance.

Until VDTs became pervasive in offices, repetitive stress injuries were prominent primarily in occupations such as meatpacking and grocery checking. Once office workers began complaining in large numbers, ailments such as carpal tunnel syndrome, a debilitating wrist injury, started receiving widespread attention.

Although changes in the San Francisco measure in recent weeks have made it much more palatable to businesses, employers maintain that governments should not be in the business of trying to set rules to prevent problems caused by VDT use. They urge that companies be allowed to take steps voluntarily.

Some observers said the measure would put an especially heavy burden on small- and medium-size companies that do not have deep pockets for buying expensive adjustable furniture. With its slow-growth provisions, expensive office space and high taxes, San Francisco already is widely perceived as being anti-business, business leaders said, and this measure could exacerbate the problem.

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“On top of everything else . . . this would be the last straw” for some businesses, said Sue Lee, director of the city’s Small Business Advisory Commission.

San Francisco is “definitely not encouraging the formation of jobs,” agreed Jim Patrick, owner of Patrick & Co., an office-supply retailer with 75 employees.

Union organizer Kellogg said she suspects that by the next reading of the measure it could contain a hardship clause that would allow particularly hard-hit businesses to seek a longer period in which to comply.

Many major corporations say they have already begun to take costly steps to upgrade workstations. Moreover, they contend that ergonomics, the art of making equipment fit the user, is too imprecise and fast-changing to be regulated.

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“It’s a moving target; that’s what worries us,” said Mark Thompson, a spokesman for Charles Schwab & Co., a brokerage with 1,000 employees in San Francisco. Thompson said the company already spends $1,000 to $3,000 per person to ensure that workstations are comfortable and safe.

Thompson, who indicated that Schwab’s business is growing despite the economic downturn, said the company recently decided to set up facilities in Indianapolis and Denver because of their more favorable business climates.

"(We can’t) be expected to expand in San Francisco,” he said. “It’s getting too expensive.”

Jessie Knight, vice president of marketing for the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, said workstation needs vary. “What works for us may not work for Pacific Bell,” said Knight, who has represented the Chronicle and Examiner newspaper managements in a campaign against the legislation. “How do you set standards in use when some of it is affected by individuals’ own posture (and work habits)?”

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In July, Pacific Bell launched a stepped-up program to adjust workstations to “prevent stress and strain” for employees. As a result, spokesman Steve Maita said, the new measure would not necessarily end up costing the telecommunications company more than it was already budgeting.

However, he added that it could give rise to a “patchwork of local laws” that would make compliance a nightmare for the statewide company. In San Francisco, about 2,400 Pacific Bell workers use VDTs frequently.

Joan Moore, with Local 9410 of the Communications Workers of America in San Francisco, said the union “has had a war” with Pacific Bell over VDT safety but is guardedly optimistic about its new program.

Art Silverman, Agnos’ deputy press secretary, said the mayor has not indicated if he will sign the measure.

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“The mayor is awaiting final action by the board,” Silverman said.

NEXT STEP

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is expected to take a final vote next Monday on precedent-setting legislation to regulate the use of VDTs. Mayor Art Agnos has said that he is sympathetic to the plight of injured workers but would not sign the measure until he knows where the city would get the estimated $1.4 million to $3.6 million needed to upgrade workstations for city employees.


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