Safety Advocates Say State Ergonomics Standards are Weak, Rarely Enforced
More than three years after California became the first state to implement its own ergonomics standards, it is uncertain what effect the rules have had on reducing the number of workplace injuries, the Los Angeles Times reports. Under the standards, employers must take action to address an ergonomic risk if two workers performing identical tasks suffer diagnosed injuries within one year. While business groups "howled" about the "potential pitfalls" of the regulations when lawmakers and organized labor worked to implement them, they now "barely make a peep about the issue," as health and safety advocates say the rules are "weak" and "rarely enforced," thereby mitigating their impact. For instance, in "most cases," employers with injured employees can satisfy the regulation by taking "any action," a policy that labor advocates call a "trap door" for employers. According to California Division of Occupational Safety and Health statistics, since the regulation's inception in 1998, only 42 work sites (out of the state's 1.1 million employers) have been investigated and only 73 citations have been issued. The two largest fines, totaling $45,000 and $9,000, were issued in cases regarding employees at the Susanville state prison and the California Highway Patrol in Irvine, respectively. Meanwhile, the reported number of repetitive stress injuries has remained fairly static in the past five years: 33,900 in 1996, 32,300 in 1997, 31,900 in 1998 and 32,900 in 1998. Noting that these figures have not correlated to the rise in California's work force, state OSHA spokesperson Dean Fryer said the standard has created a "lot of awareness" for employers about ergonomic issues. Maggie Robbins, a health and safety consultant for the California Labor Federation, agreed in part, saying, "Having a regulation on the books of some sort, regardless of how weak it is, is motivation for some employers who want to do the right thing." But the California standard "is not an effective enforcement tool because it is too difficult for compliance officers to show a violation," she said (Silverstein/Cleeland, Los Angeles Times, 3/8).