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Commentary On this issue, California should watch, not lead

They might not have been the first, but with a messianic zeal worthy of a boatload of conquering converts, they certainly intend to be the best.

Hoping to steal the crown of great public policy disasters away from California, bureaucrats in the State of Washington are furiously pressing ahead with a regulation they hope will earn them attention and praise from the rest of the country.

The front line of common sense fell first; pleas from a unified business community were trampled next; then, lack of scientific evidence was surmounted. Unstopped so far, Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries marches toward its July 2 victory date, when it will plant the flag of its ergonomics rule into the back of the state’s fragile economy.

Washington state’s disaster with its 1993 health-care reforms and California’s smoldering wrecks of education policies and energy deregulation are merely historical anomalies. Bureaucrats are sure they have it right this time.

California was the first state to have an ergonomics rule. Wisely, no other state has even bothered with one. But ours is rather tepid compared with the one Washington wishes to wrought upon its citizenry.

Although it has a precise scientific definition, ergonomics is commonly used to refer to the workplace and sometimes to workplace injuries from tasks requiring great amounts of repetition. Injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome fit under umbrella ailments called musculoskeletal disorders.


Fundamentalist Bureaucrats

For example, carpal tunnel syndrome can be caused by lengthy computer use, according to advocates for more stringent ergonomics rules.

There is, however, an ugly reality staring the fundamentalist bureaucrats in the face at every turn: there is no solid scientific evidence that musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome are caused by the workplace.

In January, the National Academy of Sciences, in the most thorough examination of ergonomics to date, found no link. Congress immediately scrapped the federal Occupational and Health Administration’s ergonomics mandates from taking effect , a hint the state of Washington failed to notice.

Then in June, out came a study by the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale that completely debunked many long-held beliefs on the link between heavy computer use and carpal tunnel syndrome. Dr. J. Clarke Stevens, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, wrote in an accompanying press release to the study, “I’d like computer users to know that prolonged use of a computer does not seem to lead to carpal tunnel, at least not in our employees who used computers up to seven hours per day.”

This was, remarkably, a second hint missed by Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries.

When the department first released its 300 pages of ergonomics rules (including a “concise explanatory statement” that was longer), it pegged the cost of compliance for businesses at $80 million. Independent studies have put the cost closer to $725 million.


Conflicting Rules

More importantly questions such as whether the rules allow a 55-year-old woman to lift 63-pound boxes off the floor three times a minute but prohibit a 22-year-old man from lifting a 71-pound box even once, often drew different answers from different bureaucrats in the department.

Sensing the ergonomics rule might be careening out of control, Gov. Gary Locke established a blue-ribbon commission to iron things out. Supportive as he is of his own department, however, he will let the enforcement date precede any conclusive study.

In the state of Washington’s case, ergonomics is only the lead actor in a play about bureaucratic arrogance in its most supreme example. Last week a broad-based coalition of 230 public and private employer groups filed suit in Thurston County Superior Court seeking to stop the ergonomics rule from wreaking untold havoc on an economy already in the throes of a war-time recession.

For once California would be wise to keep its let’s-lead-the-nation ego in check and watch what transpires up north. Not that any of this will have any affect on the ‘Living Wage’ crowd in our state who are ready to recapture our crown should Washington wrest it away.

Hopper is California state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.

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