State Considers Ergonomic Rules for Workplace


California is considering whether to adopt the nation's first statewide standard for workplace ergonomics--a set of rules that would require all employers to take steps to safeguard their workers against "repetitive-motion illness" caused by everything from video-display terminals to jackhammers.

The regulatory debate is being watched closely by national safety specialists because repetitive-motion illness--muscular-skeletal disorders caused by repeating the same movement hundreds or thousands of times a day--remains largely unaddressed by law, despite its reputation as the fastest-growing occupational illness.

Reports of the illness have risen sevenfold in less than a decade, resulting in billions of dollars a year in worker compensation claims, according to government reports.

The proposal by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) to control "ergonomic hazards"--the improper match between workers and their equipment and tools--is still in draft form. However, it already is attracting substantial condemnation from both businesses and work-safety specialists.

At a hearing here Thursday, attended by about 60 representatives of business and labor, some business leaders complained that the proposal would be unfairly costly to employers. Others suggested that ergonomics is too young a science to be regulated.

Safety and labor groups said the proposal is written so generally that it is toothless. They also said they fear a statewide standard could be used to legally preempt stronger, more specific ergonomic laws, such as San Francisco's 1990 ordinance regulating office VDT use. Other California cities, including Berkeley and Los Angeles, are considering their own San Francisco-style VDT laws, with provisions that include requirements for adjustable furniture and mandatory rest breaks.

A final decision on whether to impose statewide ergonomic rules is expected this year by Cal/OSHA's standards board.

The stage for the current battle was set two years ago, when the standards board ignored recommendations of a citizens advisory panel and refused to adopt statewide VDT regulations. That refusal sparked support in several cities and counties for local VDT ordinances. Subsequently, state occupational safety officials promised to address VDT problems through an overall ergonomic standard.

The federal government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration also is considering imposing rules requiring all employers to adopt ergonomic plans. However, its lengthy bureaucratic process is expected to take three to five years. Last year the federal government announced non-binding ergonomic guidelines for one of the most hazardous industries, meatpacking.

California's employers already are facing a new set of safety regulations, imposed by the Legislature in 1989. Beginning July 1, all employers must implement strict injury prevention programs. They must encourage their employees to report hazards, periodically train them in safety procedures and meticulously document each step.

The Cal/OSHA proposal would add specific rules aimed at working conditions that cause repetitive-motion illness.

According to the Cal/OSHA draft proposal, employers would be required to conduct ergonomic evaluations of their work forces when signs of repetitive-motion illness surfaced.

For example, once 5% of a group of workers who performed the same task reported symptoms of the illness, the employer would have to study how the problem occurred and take steps to curb it by changing job design, equipment or tools. The proposal gives the employer wide latitude to decide how to accomplish this.

Thursday's hearing--an informal exchange between lobbyists and a Cal/OSHA citizens advisory group that will send its recommendations to the Cal/OSHA standards board--illustrated some of the difficulties of attacking ergonomics. Participants wrestled with whether to exempt some professions or part-time workers; whether eyestrain should be included as a symptom of repetitive-motion illness, and whether the state program should emphasize preventive treatment or require an employer to act only when significant problems crop up in a workplace.

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