Congress' headlong rush last week to repeal regulations designed to decrease on-the-job injuries might yet have a silver lining for California workers. That's if state officials acknowledge the weakness of California's 3-year-old rules, beef them up and bolster enforcement.
The federal ergonomics standards, aimed at reducing the frightful toll of disabling repetitive-motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, triggered vehement opposition among business groups. First proposed in 1999 during the Clinton administration, the rules took effect in January and would have been fully implemented by October had not President Bush and Congress quashed them. Instead, the new president, sympathetic to the industry furor over the cost of compliance, invited quick one-two votes last week by the House and Senate that killed the rules and foreclosed further action in this area by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
The move addressed business fears of huge workers' compensation claims for repetitive-motion injuries exacerbated on the job but stemming from nonwork activity. The congressional votes were a slap in the face to millions of workers struggling with the fast pace of jobs in packing plants, assembly lines and offices. An estimated 1.8 million work-related musculoskeletal disorders are reported annually and at least that many go unreported, according to federal statistics.
Women, particularly low-paid workers like nursing home attendants and cashiers, are especially hard hit by tendinitis, back strain, carpal tunnel damage and similar disorders. Although women represent 46% of the U.S. work force, they accounted for 64% of all repetitive-motion injuries reported to the government in 1998.
California workers have fared somewhat better than those in other states. In 1997, California became the first state to require employers to take steps to prevent ergonomic injuries. Still, the state standard is weak, certainly compared with the now-defunct federal rules, and enforcement has been tougher against government employers than those in the private sector.
A safer, less painful workplace is still possible. Last month, the California Labor Federation petitioned the state Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, asking it to conform California's ergonomic rules with the more stringent federal rules. Now that Congress has axed those regulations, the federation is pushing the state board to voluntarily toughen its rules, raising them to the standards that would have remained in effect had Congress not voted as it did last week.
The standards board, responsible for drafting all manner of occupational health and safety regulations, has 60 days to act. It should take this step. But first, Gov. Gray Davis should fill the two vacancies on the seven-member panel with individuals who understand that the price of a paycheck shouldn't be a lifetime of pain and crippling injuries.