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Tuesday, June 6, 2023
June 6, 2023

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Hurt at work? Washington lawmakers revive stalled push targeting chronic injuries


SEATTLE — Some Washington businesses could face more safety regulations if lawmakers in Olympia succeed in reversing a 20-year-old prohibition on new regulations targeting common workplace injuries.

The state Senate this month passed legislation meant to lower the risk of musculoskeletal disorders for workers. Also known as MSDs, musculoskeletal disorders range from wrist sprains to lower back injuries to carpal tunnel syndrome. They can be caused by long hours, repetitive motions and awkward postures.

In 2000, Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries issued rules meant to prevent workplace injuries and musculoskeletal disorders. Three years later, voters overturned those rules with an initiative led by business groups, which raised concerns that the proposed rules were hard to implement and too costly for employers.

This year, state Sen. Manka Dhingra, a Democrat representing Redmond, introduced legislation that would reverse the course again.

“I just think we have to make sure that people aren’t getting injured on the job,” Dhingra said in an interview. “These are issues that follow individuals for life, and it’s challenging for them and it’s challenging for employers.”

Senate Bill 5217 narrowly passed with a 27-21 vote March 1 and heads to the House of Representatives for consideration. Its introduction reignited that decades-old fight, which saw more than $1.4 million spent, a nod of approval from the U.S. Navy and a ploy to get the Seattle Mariners involved.

Work-related musculoskeletal injuries account for at least a third of workers’ compensation claims that resulted in time off work in Washington, according to the legislation.

These types of injuries are nothing new. Twenty years ago, they accounted for about 40% of all workers’ compensation costs.

“We know these injuries are preventable and we know how to prevent them,” Michael Silverstein, the former assistant director for industrial safety and health at L&I, told The Seattle Times in 2003.

Silverstein was one of the main architects of the rules thrown out by voters in 2003. The rules would have required employers to identify jobs that put employees at risk and take steps to reduce or eliminate those hazards.

The department said at the time it wouldn’t tell employers how to reduce the risk. But it did offer some suggestions, like rotating employees through different jobs, using more than one person for heavy lifts and using machines instead of people when possible.

Now, workers in many industries say they’re facing the same hazards they did decades ago.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration found in recent inspections of Amazon warehouses that the company could implement the same suggestions made in 2000 to lower the risk of injury for its workers.

Workers from around the state have been testifying in Olympia in support of the bill, which has broad union support. Business advocates, including the Washington Food Industry Association, the Building Industry Association of Washington and the Associated Builders and Contractors, have opposed the effort, arguing that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to reducing injuries.

Debby Chandler, an office worker at a high school in Spokane, told lawmakers at a recent public hearing she needs neck surgery from holding a phone between her shoulder and her ear for hours at a time.

Karen Heister, a meat cutter at Albertsons, said her 24-year career left her with a torn rotator cuff, carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands and wasted vacation days spent at the doctor’s office.

“It’s time we start preventing repetitive-motion injuries in Washington state rather than just reacting to them,” Heister said.

After L&I issued rules regarding workplace safety in 2000, voters walked them back three years later with Initiative 841. That initiative not only overturned L&I’s original rules but prohibited the department from attempting to set up similar rules in the future.

Dhingra’s legislation would overturn Initiative 841.

During the debate between 2000 and 2003, business leaders argued the rules were too complex, too vague and too bureaucratic. The standards and the proposed fixes would be difficult to implement in the workplace, they argued at the time. One campaign worker even suggested that the Mariners’ catcher — then Dan Wilson — would exceed the squatting limit under the new regulations.

It was also unnecessary, the groups argued, because L&I could already enforce safe workplace standards under Washington’s Industrial Safety and Health Act.

“It’s the worst rule I’ve ever seen,” Tom McCabe, former executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington, told The Seattle Times in 2003.

The Building Industry Association and other business groups poured more than $1 million into the campaign to pass Initiative 841. A coalition of labor unions spent more than $400,000 to fight the initiative.

The workplace safety rule got an unexpected boost from the U.S. Navy, which adopted Washington’s ergonomic standards in 2003. The state’s worksheets for identifying what it called caution-zone jobs and reducing hazards were included almost verbatim in the Navy’s workplace safety manual.

This time around, business groups are voicing the same concerns. Bruce Beckett, from the Washington Retail Association, said at a public hearing that the regulations would be time-consuming and controversial, “rather than getting right at the heart of the problem.”

Amber Carter, from Identity Clark County, a nonprofit made up of business leaders, argued it would take too long to enact the rules and, therefore, to see changes in the workplace. If the bill is signed into law, L&I will be able to start making new rules three years from now.

“We can do a better job of providing technical assistance, interventions and solutions in real time — and help workers today, help employers today,” she said. “Don’t make them wait.”

This isn’t the first attempt to get L&I more authority. Rep. Dan Bronoske, D-Lakewood, introduced legislation in the House last year to restore the state’s ability to address work-related musculoskeletal injuries. The bill passed the House but not the Senate.

Meanwhile, legislators are also considering bills that target quotas for warehouse workers, particularly at Amazon. Federal and state safety regulators have accused Amazon of creating an unsafe work environment and exposing workers to injuries, including musculoskeletal disorders.

The legislation would require employers to disclose more information about quotas that workers are expected to fill, part of an effort to ensure those requirements don’t put workers at risk by encouraging them to skip breaks or cut corners to meet the threshold.

That bill passed the House on March 6, and a companion bill is slated for a vote in the Senate.

In crafting her legislation, Dhingra said she asked business leaders what hadn’t worked in the past. They asked for a clear, transparent process that was rooted in data and that wouldn’t allow L&I to make any emergency rules, she said.

Under the proposed bill, L&I could only make one set of rules for an industry each year. Before making a rule, the department would have to set up an advisory committee of workers and employers.

The rules would apply to industries, not individual employers, and only those industries that consistently had high rates of injuries. To be eligible for rule-making, industries would have to have workers’ compensation claims for musculoskeletal disorders that were twice the overall state claim rate for these types of injuries over a five-year period.

The department will publish a list of eligible industries each year. It’s too soon to know which industries might be subject to rules, since the numbers could change in that five-year window, Dhingra and L&I said.

The legislation would also make money available to industries that are subject to rule-making so employers can purchase new equipment to reduce injury rates, Dhingra said.

She is optimistic the system will put pressure on companies to lower injury rates because one company could make an entire industry eligible for rule-making. Other industry groups could start to say, “Hey, bad actors, you need to shape up,” she said.

“We’ve been talking about this for years. This is not a new concept,” Dhingra said. “The industries that are two times the state average know who they are. This gives them three years to try to get their claims down.”