A woman in back pain in a chair who needs ergonomics rules
A woman in back pain in a chair who needs ergonomics rules

Ear­ly this morn­ing, after a floor ses­sion that last­ed for many hours, the Wash­ing­ton State House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives vot­ed 50–48 to adopt a bill spon­sored by Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Dan Bronoske (D‑28th Dis­trict: Pierce Coun­ty) that would repeal a right wing ini­tia­tive from 2003 that barred the Depart­ment of Labor & Indus­tries from adopt­ing ergonom­ic rules intend­ed to pro­tect workers.

That ini­tia­tive, I‑841, was the first mea­sure that the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute opposed fol­low­ing its for­ma­tion in August of 2003. (NPI’s Per­ma­nent Defense project, now part of NPI, pre­dates NPI’s found­ing by a year and a half; it turns twen­ty years old today, and we’re cel­e­brat­ing the occa­sion tonight.)

In an Octo­ber 30th, 2003 guest col­umn for The News Tri­bune of Taco­ma (I‑841 ergonom­ics ini­tia­tive is well-fund­ed flim­flam) Civic Ven­tures’ David Gold­stein explained what Ini­tia­tive 841 was real­ly about:

Ini­tia­tive spon­sors like to glo­ri­fy their efforts as exer­cis­es in “direct democ­ra­cy,” but the cam­paign for I‑841 is nei­ther demo­c­ra­t­ic nor direct. Per­haps the least pop­ulist piece of pri­vate leg­is­la­tion ever to reach the bal­lot, I‑841 seeks to ban state ergonom­ic rules aimed at pre­vent­ing many com­mon work­place injuries.

Front­ed by the Orwellian-sound­ing “Work­ers Against Job Killing Rules,” the ini­tia­tive is real­ly the brain­child of the Build­ing Indus­try Asso­ci­a­tion of Wash­ing­ton (BIAW), a pow­er­ful busi­ness group that exploits a loop­hole in state work­ers com­pen­sa­tion laws to fun­nel mil­lions of dol­lars to con­ser­v­a­tive can­di­dates and causes.

David added:

Accord­ing to a state analy­sis, the rules would save busi­ness­es $340 mil­lion a year due to few­er injuries, more than off­set­ting the $80 mil­lion cost of com­ply­ing (not to men­tion the pain and suf­fer­ing of injured employ­ees). Yet with work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion insur­ance rates ris­ing a stun­ning 19.4 per­cent, the BIAW — whose mem­bers’ claim rates are twice the state aver­age — would still rather spend its mil­lions fight­ing reg­u­la­tors than reduc­ing pre­ventable work­place injuries.

Ini­tia­tive 841 went on to pass in the Novem­ber 2003 gen­er­al elec­tion — a low turnout elec­tion in which most Wash­ing­ton vot­ers did not participate.

House Bill 1837 is sim­ple: it gets rid of the restric­tion on the reg­u­la­tion of work-relat­ed mus­cu­loskele­tal dis­or­ders and ergonom­ics. The bill is so sim­ple that it fits on two pages (with mar­gins removed). Most of the bill is a state­ment of findings:

The leg­is­la­ture finds that mus­cu­loskele­tal injuries are a lead­ing cause of dis­abil­i­ty, account­ing for more than 130,000,000 patient vis­its to health care providers annu­al­ly. These injuries cov­er a range of con­di­tions relat­ed to overex­er­tion and repet­i­tive motion, such as pinched nerves, sprains, her­nias, and con­nec­tive tis­sue diseases.

Mus­cu­loskele­tal con­di­tions are the num­ber one rea­son for vis­its to a physi­cian, affect­ing near­ly half of all Amer­i­cans above eigh­teen years of age.

The leg­is­la­ture finds that work-relat­ed mus­cu­loskele­tal injuries account for at least one-third of all non­fa­tal work injuries, are more severe than the aver­age non­fa­tal injury or ill­ness, and are the most fre­quent­ly report­ed cause of lost or restrict­ed work time. Work-relat­ed mus­cu­loskele­tal injuries occur from ergonom­i­cal­ly incor­rect and unreg­u­lat­ed work­ing practices.

The leg­is­la­ture finds that many of Wash­ing­ton state’s crit­i­cal indus­tries, includ­ing agri­cul­ture and health care, are described by the fed­er­al bureau of labor sta­tis­tics as high-risk indus­tries for mus­cu­loskele­tal injuries. These are also indus­tries that are cur­rent­ly expe­ri­enc­ing sig­nif­i­cant staffing shortages.

Fur­ther, these injuries lead to high employ­er costs includ­ing absen­teeism, decreased pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and increased costs for health­care, dis­abil­i­ty, and work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion, among oth­er costs.

Ini­tia­tive Mea­sure No. 841, approved by the vot­ers in 2003, repealed exist­ing ergonom­ic reg­u­la­tions and barred the depart­ment of labor and indus­tries from reg­u­lat­ing work­ing prac­tices to address mus­cu­loskele­tal injuries. The leg­is­la­ture finds that the absence of reg­u­la­to­ry author­i­ty in this impor­tant area has con­tributed to increas­es in work­place injuries and costs.

The leg­is­la­ture there­fore intends to repeal the pro­hi­bi­tion on reg­u­lat­ing work­ing prac­tices relat­ed to mus­cu­loskele­tal injuries, there­by allow­ing tar­get­ed safe­ty efforts to more effec­tive­ly and effi­cient­ly pre­vent these need­less work­place injuries. By remov­ing this out­dat­ed bar­ri­er, the leg­is­la­ture will restore the state’s abil­i­ty to more com­pre­hen­sive­ly address impor­tant work­place safe­ty issues.

Although the bill repeals I‑841, it does not allow L&I to adopt reg­u­la­tions con­cern­ing employ­ee home offices for the time being.

As stat­ed in the bil­l’s final clause:

For employ­ee home offices, the direc­tor shall not have the author­i­ty to adopt any new or amend­ed rules deal­ing with mus­cu­loskele­tal dis­or­ders, or that deal with the same or sim­i­lar activ­i­ties as these rules being repealed, until and to the extent com­pa­ra­ble rules apply­ing to employ­ee home offices are required by con­gress or the fed­er­al occu­pa­tion­al safe­ty and health administration.

Any day that the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture votes to rescind a poor­ly con­ceived right wing ini­tia­tive is a good day. We con­grat­u­late the House on this action.

Sev­en Democ­rats vot­ed against the bill, but since the House Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus can afford to lose sev­en votes and still pass a bill, it got a con­sti­tu­tion­al majority.

The roll call was as follows:

Roll Call
EHB 1837
Mus­cu­loskele­tal injuries
3rd Read­ing & Final Passage

Yeas: 50; Nays: 48

Vot­ing Yea: Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Bate­man, Berg, Bergquist, Berry, Bronoske, Callan, Chopp, Cody, Davis, Dolan, Don­aghy, Duerr, Enten­man, Fey, Fitzgib­bon, Frame, Good­man, Gregerson, Hack­ney, Hansen, Har­ris-Tal­ley, John­son, Kir­by, Klo­ba, Lekanoff, Macri, Mor­gan, Orms­by, Ortiz-Self, Orwall, Paul, Peter­son, Pol­let, Ramel, Ramos, Ric­cel­li, Ryu, San­tos, Sells, Senn, Sim­mons, Slat­ter, Stonier, Sul­li­van, Tay­lor, Thai, Valdez, Wicks, Wylie, Jinkins

Vot­ing Nay: Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Abbarno, Barkis, Boehnke, Caldier, Cham­bers, Chan­dler, Chap­man, Chase, Cor­ry, Dent, Dufault, Dye, Eslick, Gil­day, Goehn­er, Gra­ham, Grif­fey, Har­ris, Hoff, Jacob­sen, Klick­er, Klip­pert, Kraft, Kretz, Leav­itt, MacEwen, May­cum­ber, McCaslin, McEn­tire, Mos­bruck­er, Orcutt, Robert­son, Rude, Rule, Schmick, Shew­make, Springer, Steele, Stokes­bary, Suther­land, Tharinger, Vick, Volz, Walen, Walsh, Wilcox, Ybar­ra, Young

The sev­en Democ­rats vot­ing nay were Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Lar­ry Springer, Sharon Shew­make, Ali­cia Rule, Amy Walen, Steve Tharinger, Mike Chap­man, and Mari Leav­itt. Most of them are front­line mem­bers from swing or lean Demo­c­ra­t­ic dis­tricts, includ­ing Bronoske’s seat­mate (Leav­itt). Amy Walen and Lar­ry Springer, how­ev­er, are from safe dis­tricts locat­ed on the East­side of King County.

All forty-one Repub­li­cans vot­ed against pas­sage of the bill.

EHB 1837 is a sim­ple bill, so it prob­a­bly won’t need to be amend­ed in the Sen­ate. If the Sen­ate pass­es it, it’ll prob­a­bly go to Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee for signature.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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