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Ergonomics bill back on the table in Washington state

Photo: simonkr/iStockphoto

Olympia, WA — Washington state legislators are once again considering a bill aimed at reducing workers’ risk of musculoskeletal disorders.

Lawmakers and proponents/opponents of the legislation discussed the bill during a March 14 hearing before the state’s House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee.

The House passed an ergonomics bill in February 2022, but the Senate didn’t follow suit before the legislative session ended. During this current legislative session, the Senate passed S.B. 5217 on March 1. 

In 2003, a voter initiative repealed ergonomics standards put into effect by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries three years earlier. Part of the new bill would repeal the statutes preventing L&I from adopting rules on ergonomics. The bill would apply to industries or risk classifications that have an MSD workers’ compensation claims rate at least two times higher than the state’s overall average – for five consecutive years. During the five-year period before falling under the regulation, the industry or risk classification involved would have resources to help, such as access to ergonomists, bill sponsor Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) said at the hearing.

Dhingra noted that the bill includes a provision for an advisory committee made up of businesses and workers.

“What I love about this bill and the way it turned out is there is a shared value here,” she said. “Workers want to be safe and our businesses want to provide a safe working space. That is a shared value all of us have – we want everyone to be safe.”

Those who spoke in opposition of the bill noted a downward trend in ergonomics claims. David Bonauto of Washington L&I’s Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention program acknowledged the downward trend, but said MSDs still account for about 33% of total workers’ comp claims in the state. 

He said those claims go “beyond medical only” and usually involve wage replacement or chronic disability payments as well, meaning the person is out of work.

Bonauto added that SHARP’s research used a conservative definition that likely underestimates the true burden of MSDs on the state’s workers’ comp system. For example, the research didn’t include hernias, which would add another 5%, and didn’t include MSDs discovered after a medical evaluation for a different injury.

Bonauto also suggested that the downward trend could be partly a result of a regulation promulgated two decades earlier and later repealed. The regulation was aimed at helping employers identify tasks that were creating MSD risks and brought MSDs more into the spotlight.

“It triggered a significant energy in employers to identify hazards and implement controls,” Bonauto said. “It really tells you that the impact of regulation actually can trigger action beyond what is usual in employer safety and health programs.”

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