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Published: Summer, 2003; Vol 5, Num 2


Initiative Aims to Improve Construction Ergonomics

As the July 1 implementation date for Washington State's new ergonomic rules approaches, the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA) is assisting in a project aimed at improving construction ergonomics and, thus, facilitating compliance among contractors in the state.

"Though the new rules have engendered a significant outcry of opposition among small businesses in Washington, we are taking the high road," says Washington State Associated General Contractors (AGC) Safety Director John Carlson. "Rather than opposing the rule, we're using its impending implementation as a catalyst to get companies and employees thinking positively about curtailing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and injuries in our industry."

Concrete work, a source of many MSDs, is a focus of ergonomic study in Washington (Photo: Stewart Prezant Ergonomics Group).

The LHSFNA and the Laborers-AGC provided partial funding and partnered with Washington AGC in its three-part program. In the first part, the partners developed the Ergonomics Employee Awareness Program and trained more than 150 people to conduct employee training. This program meets one of the requirements of the state's new ergonomic rules. Carlson, who in recent weeks has been doing a lot of training for his member companies, says, "These sessions provide a great opportunity to field questions and look deeper into ergonomic concerns. Everyone is enthusiastic. It's all good stuff."

In the second part of the project, ergonomic risk factors defined by state Department of Labor and Industry regulators were used to examine construction tasks to determine which warrant categorization as Hazard Zone tasks based on employee time exposure. "To examine these tasks," says Carlson, "we videotaped workers performing a task on three different sites at three different companies. Using the risk factors, we then determined if employee exposure while doing the task is hazardous under the regulations. Just recently, the state reviewed and approved our task analysis process."

In the third part of the project, the Hazard Zone tasks will be examined to determine the best way to eliminate the hazards. If it is technologically and economically feasible, the hazards must be removed through administrative, design or engineering controls. Remedies will be included with the database on the AGC website.

So far, more than 300 tasks with ergonomic risk factors have been identified, of which about five percent (about 15) are deemed hazardous under the requirements of the new rules. According to LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider, who is a consultant on the project, "Even though few jobs are classified as hazardous according to the Washington rule, the process of reviewing tasks has uncovered lots of ergonomic problems, many of which are not even addressed by the rule. Many have simple solutions which contractors can implement. It has been a very positive and productive process."

A key element of the project will be the compilation of a database of the tasks with ergonomic risks. By establishing one database for use by all Washington AGC members, the project saves each contractor between $20,000 and $30,000 that it, otherwise, would have had to spend to ensure its compliance with the regulations. "Of course, our members are happy about that savings," says Carlson, "and we also expect that, down the road as MSDs decline, they will save further with lower workers' compensation premiums."

"There's no question but that this standard will reduce MSDs," says Washington & Northern Idaho District Council Business Manager and Secretary Treasurer Larry Bindner, who served on the blue ribbon panel appointed by Washington Governor Gary Locke to examine and address concerns of the state's business community. "I've been around long enough to remember when fall protection and trenching standards were imposed. Many businesses felt those rules would ruin them, but, in the long run, they've saved lives and careers and kept skilled workers on the job. I believe the ergonomics standard will do the same, and that's good for Laborers and management, alike."

National injury data support this supposition. Lower back pain - a typical MSD - is responsible for the most injuries (15%), the greatest proportion of construction claim costs (21.3%) and the most disability days (25.5%). Data from 1992-94 confirm that 17 - 39 percent of all workers' compensation claims in Washington State were for MSDs. Because workers' compensation insurance rates are tied directly to employers' rates of injury and lost workdays, ergonomic improvements should lead to lower premiums.

"Aside from California, which has a limited ergonomic rule, Washington is the only state that has adopted ergonomic regulations," says Schneider. "Nationwide, its implementation experience will be closely watched."

[Steve Clark]