Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Washington Ergo Vote A Week Away

As the final countdown begins in Washington state, the battle rages over the nation's only effective, comprehensive ergonomics ergonomics standard. If Yes on 841 wins, the ergonomics standard will be repealed, and the state would be barred from ever adopting another ergonomics rule unless required to by the federal government.

The vote on Initiative 841 comes a week from today. There has been no recent polling and there are no other major issues on the ballot, so both sides expect turnout to make the difference.

Before I proceed to rant and rave, a review of recent developments:
  • The U.S. Navy adopted the Washington State ergonomics rule last week. So much for the argument that the rule is based on junk science. (The Department of Defense, by the way, has also has very good ergonomics policies for some time.)
    "We saw Washington's rule as a great tool to identify risk factors (for ergonomic injuries) so we wanted to adopt it for the Navy," said Cathy Rothwell, a Navy Ergonomics Program Manager based in San Diego. "The feedback we've gotten from people in the field is that they like the checklist. It is widely accepted and widely used as an easy way to identify hazards."
  • The bad news is that business lobbying groups financing Initiative 841 have launched a $1 million TV and radio advertising campaign. They are trying to scare Washington voters into repealing an important work safety rule and forbid the state from adopting another rule to prevent debilitating ergonomic-related injuries.

    The I-841 campaign's high-priced California political consultants have recommended playing upon people's biggest fears: Loss of their jobs and loss of health care benefits. So I-841 TV and radio ads claim jobs will be lost and children will lose health insurance.

  • The good news is that the "Yes" side is falling short of their fundraising goals, having blown a good part of their wad on getting signatures to put the initiative on the ballot. To the rescue rides the National Coalition on Ergonomics, the D.C. based, Chamber of Commerce sponsored group that brought us the repeal of the federal standard. NCE has been actively fundraising, urging members to send check to "Workers Against Job Killing Rules, Yes on I-841." (Do I sense a whiff of job blackmail here?)

    And what are they using to strike fear into the hearts of potential donors? The specter of labor advertisements. "If previous congressional ad-campaigns are anything to go by, you can expect ads with mothers unable to lift their children and other disabled workers who blame the lack of ergonomics rules for their situations." Such ads would not be surprising, considering the number of actual mothers who can't lift their children and other workers who are disabled because of the lack of ergonomics standards.

    But even with their money problems, the good guys are still being outspent. Feel free to contribute.

  • You may recall a posting I wrote last month about an article written by confessed serial corporate "expert witness" Steven Moss where Moss admitted to being part of a group of highly paid expert witnesses who are hired and paid by one side in a case, and "get compensated for saying what the lawyers want to hear." And that Moss's firm, M.Cubed, was the consultant that came up with the notorious estimate that the Washington State ergonomics standard would costs the state $750 million.

    Turns out the Association of Washington Business (AWB), one of the main backers of Prop 841, is SHOCKED, SHOCKED that a business consultant could possibly ever think that his lucrative contract might depend on his williness to "say what the lawyers want to hear."

    As might have been expected, the AWB was not amused by Moss's article because it makes them and their cost figure look like idiots. In fact, they are so displeased that they are threatening to sue Moss to get back the money they paid for the "study." They didn't pay him to give them what they wanted to hear. No, no, they paid him for an accurate study done in good faith.

    Accurate. Yeah, that's the ticket.

    Moss is now claiming that when he wrote about his slimy profession and his foul deeds, he didn't mean this study. No, no no. This study was, in fact, accurate and done in good faith.

    OK, that clears it all up.
Now, it's almost too easy to make fun of these organizations and their stupid arguments. But, as we have learned, stupid sometimes wins, especially when combined with money and organization. So make no mistake. This is deadly serious. As I've written before,
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 an appeal by business to overturn the rule, 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.
Having been through this fight a number of times before, it never ceases to amaze me how all the same stupid arguments continue to show up:
Businesses do accept that ergonomics standards are a good practice, but they would prefer to voluntarily adopt them. An enterprise could follow guidelines that would be customized to its specific type of business rather than be forced to follow Labor and Industries' strict approach.

In theory, this could work. There are indeed incentives to strong self-imposed standards. These include the avoidance of lawsuits by injured workers, higher workers' compensation rates, sick leave expense and the cost of training and replacing injured workers. No one wants injuries
What planet is this guy from? Sure voluntary is great. It would be great if we could have voluntary speed limits, voluntary securities rules, voluntary assault guidelines. We wouldn't need all of those damn police with their one-size-fits-all laws.

And since when can workers sue their employers for musculoskeletal injuries? And don't even get me started on how well workers comp functions as a safety motivator -- especially for musculoskeletal injuries. But hey, "in theory," voluntary standards could work. It could happen. Anything's possible.

But the people who actually do the work, like nurses, aren't buying it:
The American Nurses Association says every year, 12 percent of the nation's RN's leave their jobs because of back injuries. Maggie Flanagan blew out her back moving a hospital monitor and spent 8 months rehabbing.

"It was so bad, I didn't think I was coming back to work, that's why I'm so passionate, I know people that did not come back," says Maggie Flanagan.


"Bottom line, you take care of your workers and make sure they're protected," says Washington State Nurses Association's Barbara Blakeney.

But the nurses worry without ergonomic mandates, companies won't voluntarily comply, leaving no one to watch their backs.
And Judy Middleton isn't buying it either:
The ergonomics rule was intended to help people like Judy Middleton, a 60-year-old grocery checker from Kent. Middleton started working as a checker nearly 40 years ago and still puts in at least 80 hours a month to keep her health insurance.

With all of the bending, lifting and repetitive motions they have to do, grocery workers are among those most vulnerable to ergonomic hazards.

Over the past decade, Middleton said she has undergone surgeries for two hernias and for carpal-tunnel syndrome in both wrists. "My arms were sleeping and I wasn't," she said.

She had to miss six weeks of work for each of the carpal-tunnel operations.

Middleton, who until recently was oblivious to the fight over ergonomics, said she isn't sure whether it's something government should be trying to enforce. But she is convinced there are things grocery stores can do, such as better designs for check stands, to reduce the risk of injury.

At the QFC store where she works, checkers must lift items out of the customer's shopping cart and slide them across the scale or scanner. "All of it," she said. "The pumpkins, the turkeys, the watermelons, the six cases of beer. You ache when you go home."
Bottom line, of course, is that this thing has to be stopped. As most of you faithful readers can't vote in Washington State, you may be wondering what to do. Aside from sending money, call or e-mail any friends or relatives you have in Washington. Direct them to the No on 841 website. Urge them to vote against 841 and to spread the word to their friends as well.

One industry representative described Initiative 841 as their "last, best chance" to kill ergonomics rules in this country once and for all. Let's make sure that this will be the last we'll ever hear from them.