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November 28, 2022

Ergonomics law would cause further economic pain, business groups claim

Ergonomics legislation is not sitting well with several business organizations in Washington state. Representatives of these organizations warn that such legislation, if passed, would be a job-killer for companies struggling to emerge from the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Bill 1837, introduced in the House on Jan. 10, would restore the state’s ability to address work-related musculoskeletal injuries. On Feb. 14, HB 1837 passed the House on a 50-48 vote.

In 2003, Initiative 841 was approved by 53.49% of Washington voters, repealing existing state ergonomic regulations unless a uniform federal standard is required. In an October 2006 ruling, the state Supreme Court found that the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) still retained the ability to address egregious workplace hazards.

“We are strongly opposed to HB 1837,” said Patrick Connor, Washington state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, characterizing the legislation as a “resurrection of bad policy from two decades ago” and “massive regulatory overreach.”

Tammie Hetrick, president and CEO of the Washington Food Industry Association, is also not a fan of the proposed law.

“This legislation could not come at a worse time,” she said in a press release.  “Voters already rejected this idea in 2003 with I-841, but lawmakers continue to press on, ignoring the will of the people.”

The proposed law is unnecessary, she claimed, noting the grocery industry already has workplace safety programs in place to protect workers, provide training programs, and other measures to take care of employees.

It’s the little guy who will pay the price if HB 1837 becomes law, she contended.

“A move toward automation will only help the larger brick-and mortar and online retailers,” Hetrick stated. “It’s the little stores – the mom-and-pop grocers and the small stores that will really get squeezed by this legislation.”

Hetrick concluded, “People often talk about the cumulative cost of doing business – this is a perfect example. At some point, businesses will reach a breaking point. HB 1837 just might be it for some of our members, who have struggled to survive the pandemic, only to find more regulations on the horizon. It just doesn’t make sense.”

The Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) opposes the legislation for many of the same reasons.

“Regulations cost employers billions, lead to more automation and worker displacement, and exacerbate the workforce shortage by limiting how many hours employees can legally work,” said Janelle Guthrie, BIAW communications director, in an email to The Center Square.

On Feb. 24, the Senate Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs Committee gave HB 1837 a do-pass recommendation after amending the legislation so that it prohibits L&I from adopting more than one industry standard per year until Jan. 1, 2027, limiting the first rule to janitorial and building cleaning services.

That’s of little comfort to Guthrie.

“They’ve amended the bill so at this point it only applies to janitorial workers but…it’s just a matter of time before the next business is affected,” she said.

More government red tape translates into more businesses going under, according to Guthrie.

“Businesses around the state are still trying to recover from the response to the pandemic,” she said. “New ergonomics rules would be the nail in the coffin for many.”

Deputy Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Dan Bronoske, D-Lakewood, is the prime sponsor of the legislation.

He defended the bill at a Feb. 23 public hearing before the Senate Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs Committee, saying the legislation “is going to have a real positive benefit for workers across the state of Washington to allow them to work a little bit more safely, allow them to address some of those repetitive motion injuries.”

Bronoske concluded, “And you know, a full 40% of all L&I claims paid out are due to musculoskeletal disorders, probably because of a lack of ergonomics and repetitive motion injuries.”

That figure was higher than what was given by David Bonauto, research director of L&I’s Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention (SHARP) program, in written testimony from Jan. 25 to the House Labor & Workplace Standards Committee.

“A conservative estimate is that 33% of Washington workers’ compensation ‘compensable’ claims (claims that result in workers’ compensation benefits beyond just medical benefits) involve work-related musculoskeletal disorders,” he wrote. “Likewise, about a third of workers compensation compensable claim costs in the state fund are attributable to work-related musculoskeletal disorders.”

He went on to note, however, such claims are down over the last decade-and-a-half.

“Over the last 15 years, in Washington workers’ compensation claims data, we’ve seen decreasing rates of work-related musculoskeletal disorders,” he wrote.

Given that workplaces have implemented improved safety standards and reports of injuries are waning, Connor was skeptical of the need for more bureaucratic attention from Olympia.

“It’s a one-size-fits-none rule from Labor & Industries,” he quipped.

HB 1837 is in the Rules Committee awaiting a floor vote.

This article was originally posted on Ergonomics law would cause further economic pain, business groups claim