Monday, November 03, 2003


Washington state voters will decide today whether or not to repeal the nation's only comprehensive, preventive ergonomics standard. As I've written before, the stakes are extemely high, not just for workering people in Washington state, but ultimately for workers throughtout the entire country.

This Olympian article describes the election as
A costly battle over Initiative 841 on Tuesday's general election ballot pits the state's grocers, home builders and other worried industries against the state's labor unions.
Actually, to be more precise, it pits industry associations and their misinformed members against hundreds of thousands of workers doing jobs every day that may lead to completely preventable disabilities, workers who have no one to speak for them except labor unions.

It's hard to know what will happen, or how big the turnout will be, but this column from The Olympian may describe how most voters are responding to today's election:
Initiative 841, which would repeal a Washington state ergonomics regulation and prevent the adoption of new regulations until a uniform federal standard is required, has some people scratching their heads.

"It's a confusing one for a lot of voters," said [said County Auditor Kim Wyman].

"People are asking simple questions, like what is ergonomics."
Despite the confusion of many voters, the referendum has shaped up into a titanic and expensive battle
I-841 has attracted a coalition of business groups led by the Building Industry Association of Washington, which has provided more than $800,000 of the coalition's $1.4 million campaign financing. The measure is on the ballot thanks to paid signature gatherers.

The Washington State Labor Council and other worker groups have lined up against I-841, raising more than $510,000 for their campaign.
Like the battle against the federal ergonomics compaign, the campaign to pass Initiative 841, as well as the process to encourage voters to sign petitions to put the referendum on the ballot have been supported by a back-breaking stack of lies by the business associations supporting I-841.

In the past week, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has come out against the initiative ("Initiative 841 runs roughshod over the working public's right to safety, the normal processes of government and the state's power, ") and the U.S. Navy has adopted the Washington state standard.

For what it's worth, the small town, conservative Wenatchee World is favoring repeal of the standard. What's interesting about the Wenatchee World's editorial is how the paper has been totally captured by the industry's most effective (il)logic. For example:
You might think, with Washington state's unemployment among nation's worst and its economy barely qualified as stagnant, our government would not volunteer us to pioneer efforts to regulate when, how, and for how long employees may do a particular job.
Two things about this paragraph.

1. Note the traditional job blackmail that industry has used since the dawn of time to oppose workplace safety and environmental regulations: Get rid of this job killer or you'll be out on the street.

2. By killing the federal standard and scaring other states out of passing new ergonomic standards, they are able to argue that Washington is a "pioneer" in a dangerous, unique experiment. Which is exactly why it's so important to defeat this referendum -- to give courage to other states to follow Washington's example.
Whether such a system will do much to reduce worker injuries is debatable.
3. Not really. The National Academy of Sciences has done two major literature review at the request of Congress, and NIOSH has also done a review, all showing the connection between workplace stressors and musculoskeletal injuries, as well as the fact that ergonomics measures prevent these injures.

But there is little doubt that for business the rules and dictates will add to an already considerable regulatory burden, and add considerably to the expense of putting people to work.
4. Au contraire. In fact, there is little doubt that these rules will save businesses far more in workers comp and other savings than they will cost to implement. (See here as well.)
Washington state is not in a position to add to the expense of employing workers. It is not in a position to be the only state in the nation with such workplace rules. Our growing reputation as a poor place to do business will only be enhanced. We will be known as the only state that put in force ergonomic regulations even more strict than those already rejected by the federal government as onerous. Having lost hundreds of thousands of jobs, it is irresponsible to put more at risk unnecessarily.

See Nos. 1 and 2 above.
How great the risks may be is difficult to discern. The business opponents of the ergonomic regulations, the proponents of the initiative, are called liars by their labor union opponents, and the compliment is returned. Estimates of the expense of implementing the regulations vary widely - $80 million, says the Department of Labor and Industries; $700 million say studies for business. Whichever figure is closer to truth seems irrelevant to the question of whether such regulations are wise in the current circumstances.
5. Actually, the supporters of this initiative ARE liars. It's been documented, proven and admitted.

6. True, there is some "controversy" over the true costs of this regulations. But, again, they are liars. And if you don't believe what the Department of Labor and Industries says, check out how even Bush's regulatory Czar, John Graham now confirms the propensity of both industry and government to overestimate the cost of environmental and workplace safety regulations.

7. How can the truth be "irrelevant" when the right decision will not only save employers money, but save workers' backs. What's not "wise" for businesses is to believe the propaganda and ignore the facts.
In fact, the regulations may serve no useful purpose. Businesses have immense incentive to make their workplaces safer and see to it workers are less likely to be injured.
8. Immense incentives? What? Like workers comp? That's a laugh. When you have plenty of low-wage workers, many of whom need a job, any job, and others of whom may be illegal, you have an "immense incentive" to get rid of the ones who are injured or complaining and sign up the next desparate crowd.

It's true that individual employers are learning the value of ergonomics, especially those with more highly skilled workers, but there are still far too many who are either too cheap, or find their low-income employees expendable, or believe the industry line that there is no science behind ergonomics.

The fact is that the Washington Department of Labor and Industries has gone far beyond the call of duty to study and explain the reasoning behind this standard and how to make it work.

And if the Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation for Independent Businesses and Building Industry Association of Washington want to do their members a real service, they would hold up the Washington Department of Labor and Industries as a model of how regulations should be issued and supported.

But these associations make far more money and generate far more dependent members by exploiting the fears of their members than by working out ways to make their businesses profitable while protecting their employees at the same time.

Good jobs, safe jobs, and successful businesses are not incompatible, as many businesses know. But this country is not about protecting only those workers who are lucky enough to work for enlightened employers. The right to a safe workplace belongs to everyone* and it sometimes takes regulations to make it happen.

We should all be thanking the state of Washington for having the courage to make it happen. Other states should use them as a model. And businesses -- large and small -- should wake up and force their associations to honestly represent their interests instead of just stoking their fears.

*except public employees in most states.