Monday, June 02, 2003

Anti-Ergonuts: Someone Please Drive a Stake Through Their Cold Hearts

About 50,000 people in the state of Washington suffer preventable musculoskeletal injuries at work every year, costing the state workers’ compensation fund $400 million annually. The cost of this No. 1 source of workplace injuries is a major factor in driving up employers’ L&I premiums, making it harder to create and maintain good jobs. Nationwide, while the total number of ergonomics-related injuries is falling, they make up one-third of all work-related injuries year after year.

But like the living dead, foes of Washington State's ergonomics standard never give up. They tried to stop the standard before it was issued, to no avail. They've tried to legislate it to death, but failed. And the Governor threatens to veto any bill that reaches his desk. They've taken it to the courts and lost badly. Just a few weeks ago, they took it to the Washington State Supreme Court. (No word yet).

Now the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIA), a well-financed business lobbyist group that represents commercial home builders, is leading a campaign to get enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot that would repeal the ergonomics standard. And they're not letting anything like the truth stand in their way.

A Bellingham Herald editorial described the lies told by representatives of the company gathering signatures for the BIA:
Signature gatherers for Initiative 841 were telling people in Spokane recently that under the rules adopted by the state Department of Labor & Industries that carpet layers and drywallers wouldn't be able to work more than two hours per day. Laborers could only lift one load weighing more than 75 pounds. Workers can't have their arms above their heads or their elbows above their shoulders for more than two hours per day. Mariners catcher Dan Wilson might not even be able to catch an entire game.

There's only one problem. None of this is true.
The company gathering the signatures admitted that the statements were false, as did the the BIA which contracted with the company that is gathering the signatures. The Herald isn't buying it.
The statements originated somewhere long before the initiative drive began and the BIA has an obligation to track down where the misinformation came from and explain how it got spread through its ranks and ultimately ended up as "talking points" for signature gatherers.
The Herald magnanimously states that "We have no reason to believe the BIA was involved in intentional deception. But a more complete explanation would go a long way toward restoring credibility to the organization's campaign."

Personally, I wouldn't be quite so charitable after looking at the BIA's webpage. The lies they tell there are just as bad as the ones described in the Herald. First they make the same old tired claims that the standard will bankrupt the construction industry in Washington. Then, packing into one short sentence more lies and distortions than entire industry webpages, they write that the high cost of the regulation is why "the U.S. Senate in 2001, led by democrat Tom Daschle (SD) voted to repeal the ergonomics rule being considered by the federal government, which was far less restrictive and less expensive than Washington's." (emphasis added)

For those of you reading this who have already forgotten one of the first high crimes of the Bush administration and have not understanding of the American political process, allow me to dissect this paragraph:

1. The federal OSHA ergonomics standard was repealed in March 2001. The Senate at that time was still in Republican hands. Jim Jeffords (I-VT) had not yet defected, throwing the Senate into Democratic hands.

2. Although they are trying to imply that Tom Daschle led the Senate to repeal the ergonomics standard, at that time Daschle was Senate minority leader and a vigorous supporter of the ergonomics standard. Had the Democrats been in control of the Senate, it is very likely that millions of American workers would today have effective protections against ergonomic hazards.

3. The federal ergonomics standard was not being "considered," it had already been issued.

4. The federal standard was in many ways much broader than Washington's. It contained medical monitoring and work removal protection which provided wage replacement for workers who could not work due to work-related musculoskeletal injuries. The only reason the BIA thinks is was "less restrictive and less expensive," is that it didn't cover the construction industry. For BIA members, therefore, it was much less restrictive and expensive.

The BIA also claims that the standard will "encourage frivolous lawsuits against employers by employees," conveniently forgetting that employees are not allowed to sue their employers for work-related injuries. They're also SHOCKED that the standard was "adopted by unelected bureaucrats....with no input from elected officials." (I hope these guys are American citizens, because I doubt that they could pass the citizenship test.)

(Of course, it may not really be all that amusing. Lies can be effective, as anyone who has been politically conscious for the past couple of years knows.)

Interestingly, the entire construction industry is not backing Prop. 841. The Associated General Contractors of Washington are remaining neutral. In a letter titled "AGC protects workers and contractors through ergonomics training and research," Roland Dewhurst, CEO/Executive Vice President of the Washington State AGC states that
As an organization we are committed to continue implementing the [ergonomics] programs we have published and completing the research we have begun. In the long run, we believe that is a better solution than taking a "one way or the other" approach. We believe we can help reduce worker injuries and protect contractor rights at the same time.
The Washington State AFL-CIO is leading a vigorous "Think Before You Ink" campaign to keep the referendum off the ballot.

As I've pointed out before, although it has flaws, the Washington State ergonomics standard is the most effective of the two existing state ergonomics standards. (California is the other. Because of its serious weaknesses, the California AFL-CIO is engaged in a campaign to strengthen it.) The anti-ergonuts are making repeal of the Washington State standard a top priority, realizing that if they can kill it, those forces favoring a federal standard, as well as more state standards, will lose their only effective regulatory foothold.

Meanwhile, back at the fort...

The anti-ergonuts are also trying to kill American National Standard Institutes proposed consensus ergonomics standard which has been under development for over ten years. The ANSI Z365 Ergonomics Committee is administered by the National Safety Council (NSC) and includes representatives from business, labor, academia and professional societies. The NSC is finally getting close to finalizing the standard. But the anti-ergonuts have been pressuring the NSC to abort the standard under the threat of a lawsuit. So far the NSC is resisting.

Stuck even further in the dark ages than Bush's OSHA, the anti-ANSI forces persist in denying that there is any basis for a connection between work and musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome. Ignoring the thousands of studies, including two National Academy of Sciences reviews, the flat-earth type society persists in citing a "lack of scientific and medical consensus on the proper diagnosis and treatment of work-related musculoskeletal injuries." Although industry opposition is by no means universal, the foes of the ANSI standard argue that because some are opposed, there can, by definition, never be any "consensus."

The other tactic the anti-ergonuts are using is to charge the NSC with process violations. Larry Halpern, attorney for the National Coalition on Ergonomics charges that the process lacks openness, balance, due process as well as consensus. Procedural violations are one of the tactics that the anti-ergonuts used to fight OSHA's ergonomics standard. (They charged that OSHA had improperly compensated consultants to defend OSHA's proposed standard, even though all regulatory agencies -- under Republican and Democratic administrations do the same thing.)

I've served on the ANSI Z365 committee and it's open (anyone, including observers, can contribute), balanced (labor, academics and industry) and has due process out the wazoo. As far as consensus, many of the industry participants agree with the process and with the need for a standard. Halpern and a few of his cronies don't want a mandatory or a voluntary standard and they're trying to use the same tired old objections to try to block consensus.

The problem is that these guys don't want anything -- no OSHA standard, no voluntary consensus standards. They don't even like the Bush administration's voluntary ergonomcs guidelines because they accept that there is a connection between workplace conditions and msuculoskeletal injuries.

According to Inside OSHA, "Halpern said the only way to resture due process to the effort of crafting a consensus ergonomics standard is 'would be for the standard to be withdrawn and the committee to be dissolved.'" Yeah, that's the ticket. The committee should see the error of its ways and commit suicide. Then we could reappoint another committee made up solely of representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Food Marketing Institute, maybe the Mercatus Institute and the Republican National Committee for good measure. At least then we'd have consenus.

The bottom line is that this is not about ergonomics, it's not about the process and it's not about the science. It's about right-wing ideology. It's about industry associations like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers raising money and building political power on the backs of workers.

And it's about time we stop them. These regulatory "debates" and political battles rarely make the front pages, and almost never make the evening news. While the news covers the war in Iraq and tax cuts for the wealthy, battles are being fought behind the scenes that directly affect whether workers will come home injured or healthy, alive or dead from a day at work. There are good guys and bad guys. This is information that everyone needs to know -- especially as we enter an election year.