Wednesday, September 10, 2003


The war of the worlds is being staged in Washington State right now. The right-wing anti-ergonomics ideologues are using the referendum process – Initiative 841 -- supported by the usual lies and distortions, to kill Washington’s ergonomics standard at the ballot box on November 4.

I’ve written before about this attempt to once again repeal needed worker protections here and here.

The stakes here are extremely high for a number of reasons. First, the ergo foes have failed so far to repeal the standard in the legislature or in the lower courts. The Washington Supreme Court is still considering a business appeal, but the good guys expect to win. The referendum is their last chance. If they lose, they are out of options. A win will have nationwide implications for workplace safety: the already difficult task of getting other states to issue ergonomics standards – a process that could put pressure on the federal level -- will become very nearly impossible

But there are other reasons that it is imperative to defeat this referendum. Like the California gubernatorial recall, Initiative 841 is another example of big right-wing dollars being used to distort the referendum process and democracy itself. If not for the huge amounts of money used to hire professional canvassers and flood the media with misinformation, the referendum never would have reached the ballot.

Finally, like the repeal of the federal ergonomics standard, right wing ideologues are using lies, distortions and massive amounts of money to subvert the administrative process by which agencies comply with their mandates to do what Congress and the state legislatures intended for worker protection laws to do – protect workers.

And, as usual, when all the dust settles it may be workers and their families who may end up paying the price:
Each year, 50,000 Washington workers suffer preventable ergonomic-related injuries to their backs, joints, muscles and tendons. These painful chronic injuries, such as carpal tunnel, account for almost half of all workers' compensation costs to our state's industrial insurance system and are driving up workers' compensation costs -- even for safe employers.
The Washington State ergo foes are using the same weapon they used to deep-six the federal standard: lies. An article last may in the Spokane Spokesman-Review outlined the most obvious lies that the referendum sponsors used to gather signatures:
Carpet layers and drywallers wouldn't be able to work more than two hours per day, said signature gatherers outside of Lowe's Hardware stores on North Division and East Sprague. Laborers could only lift one load weighing more than 75 pounds.

Mariners catcher Dan Wilson might not even be able to catch an entire game.

But the new law designed to reduce workplace injuries doesn't have those restrictions
Actually, according to Mike Silverstein, assistant director of industrial safety and health of the state Department of Labor and Industries, the signature collectors are referring erroneously to the section of the standard that talks about “caution zones”
The hourly limitations described in the talking points appear to come from a section that deals with "caution zone jobs," Silverstein said. They are conditions that could require an employer to take certain precautions, such as extra training or education, or perhaps some additional equipment.

But the section on caution zones also says that such jobs are not prohibited.

"Under no circumstances does (the law) require employers to replace a worker with part-time help or reduce hours," Silverstein said.
Unfortunately, according to Washington State law, it’s OK for signature gatherers to lie:
But the fact that they could make false statements about the ballot proposal -- whether intentional or not -- illustrates a problem with the state's initiative system.

People who are paid per signature collected -- called circulators in the industry -- can tell voters almost anything about a proposal with little fear of sanction. The state Supreme Court ruled five years ago that supporters and opponents can't be sanctioned for lying about an initiative.
Many of the other lies and the real story can be found on the No on 841 Webpage. Although some of the false statements were discontinued and other lies on the webpage of the initiative’s main sponsor, the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIA) , were taken down, the damage has been done. The initiative is on the ballot.

What the BIA and its allies are lacking in truth, they are making up for in money. They spent over $350,000 to gather signatures and are expected to spend another $1 million before the November 4 election.

What Can You Do?

Send money: Workers and unions need money to get the truth out. If you’ve got some cash burning a hole in your pocket while you decide which Democratic candidate to support for President, send some of it to Washington. If you can’t donate yourself, ask your union local to send in a contribution. Donations can be sent to: Any donations can be sent to:

Working Families For Safe Jobs
300 Queen Anne Ave. N. #411
Seattle, Washington 98109

Write letters to the editor: The “No on 841” site is still under construction. In the meantime, the bad guys on the “Yes on 841” website have graciously provided a way to send letters to all of the newspapers in Washington. I'm sure they wouldn't mind if you used it to send your own message opposing the referrendum.

Educate and Agitate: If you don’t live in Washington State, but have any friends or relatives there, educate them and urge them to get involved.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch: The National Ergonomics Scene

I wrote last month about how the industry backed National Coalition on Ergonomics and its supporters in the big industry associations were so upset with OSHA’s feeble attempts to enforce the OSH Act by issuing a handful of ergonomics citations that they were considering suing the agency. A Wall St. Journal article on Monday confirmed that the business associations are up in arms at the fact that OSHA has cited 11 (yes, 11!) employers around the country for ergonomics violations.

The Bush administration’s “activity” compares with 935 citations during the first Bush administration and 120 during Clinton’s years. (The Clinton administration was reluctant to issue too many ergo citations because the DOL Solicitors were scared to death of losing and setting any more bad precedents, and after 1995, they were reluctant to raise too many political red flags in front of a Republican Congress at the same time they were working on the ergonomics standard.)

The associations are accusing OSHA of basing its citations on the voluntary guidelines it issued in an effort to show that it was taking action against ergonomic injuries.
But the first guidelines, for nursing homes, prompted employer complaints that they appeared based on the rejected Clinton rules -- and could be used to justify general duty clause citations, despite administration promises to the contrary.

Now they say their fears are coming true. "There continues to be well-founded concern in the business community that . . . the culture of heavy-handed enforcement at OSHA has not changed," said Tim Hammonds, head of the Food Marketing Institute, in a letter commenting on OSHA's recently proposed ergonomics guidelines for the grocery stores.

The business lobby's National Coalition on Ergonomics urged OSHA to re-evaluate the citations and withdraw ones "that do not reflect the prudent exercise of prosecutorial discretion."
The bottom line is that these guys clearly want nothing -- no federal standard, no state standards, no guidelines, no citations, no data collection.

The harshest accusations came from Janice Zalen of the American Healthcare Association, which represents 12,000 nursing-home operators. “Citations issued to nursing-home companies ‘almost read like a repetition of the rule that was rescinded’"

“Well,” as my kids would say, “Duh!”

That’s because there was nothing evil, complicated or particularly new about the Clinton standard; it was basically just an ergonomics “program standard” which means that after discovering injuries or other indications of a problem, the employer provides medical management, assesses the cause of the problem, determines what might be done to address it, and then implements solutions. There are a number of similar OSHA program standards that also set the basic outlines for a safety program, but then allow employers to work out whatever details are appropriate to their business.

And these are the exact same basic programmatic procedures used to address ergonomics and other health and safety problems by conscientious employers like the members of OSHA’s VPP program, promoted by the agency to recognize “outstanding efforts of employers and employees who have achieved exemplary occupational safety and health.” No wonder the elements of the nursing homes’ citations sounded familiar.For the most part the citations were repetitions of the rescinded rule, which, despite the inflated rhetoric, was a repetition of what successful employers were already doing to address ergonomic hazards.

One of the outraged recipients of a whopping $4,500 citation was the Coca Cola bottling company.
OSHA cited Tri-State Coca-Cola Bottling Co. for requiring workers to perform various repetitive and awkward manual tasks -- lifting, pushing, pulling, bending and twisting -- while handling heavy boxes, beverage cases and carbon-dioxide tanks. The citation suggested various methods for preventing injuries, including easily controlled handcarts and handhold cutouts on boxes.
In the end, of course, all of this amounts to a tempest in a teapot. A quick review of the OSHA website (which lists 9 of the 11 citations) reveals that the highest citation was only $12,600 against Supervalue food wholesalers. Three of the five citations against nursing homes were for less than $300 each, with the largest nursing home citation coming in under $3,000.
All the complaining has labor unions scratching their heads, because they think the Bush administration ergonomics enforcement actions and guidelines aren't nearly tough enough. "OSHA is just exercising its tepid authority," said Jackie Nowell, safety and health director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Without an explicit ergonomics rule in place, "thousands of workers are becoming permanently disabled and losing their jobs" because of musculoskeletal disorders, she says.
But no one could justify the need for a standard better than Coca Cola in their response to the OSHA citation. According to the Journal:

“The company, which is contesting the citation, said its employees are given at least two hours a year of safety training.”

I have yet to see a better illustration of the need for a mandatory OSHA standard.