Standards Board Still Laboring on Ergonomics

Although a statutory deadline for adoption of an ergonomics standard has passed, the Cal/OSHA Standards Board continues to work toward its legislative mandate to impose a standard in California.

In May, the Board held two public meetings to receive public input. The first meeting was in Sacramento on May 16. A second session was held in San Diego on May 31. As the Board prepares to go through the rulemaking process again, the meetings were held to obtain information from various affected parties, such as management, labor, experts, and knowledgeable persons on a reasonable and enforceable regulatory approach to ergonomics.

Labor Code Section 6357, enacted in July, 1993, required the Board to adopt an ergonomics standard in California by January 1, 1995. In imposing this mandate, the Legislature gave no guidance as to scope or approach. The code section simply dictates, "On or before January 1, 1995, the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board shall adopt standards for ergonomics in the workplace designed to minimize the instances of injury from repetitive motion."

An ergonomics standard in California would be the first such standard in the nation. The less than eighteen months given proved insufficient time to draft such a groundbreaking standard. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has worked on a proposed ergonomics standard for several years and has yet to make any formal proposal.

While there is widespread agreement that repetitive motion injuries are a safety and health problem, there is little agreement on how to address the problem most effectively. Two public hearings conducted by the Cal/OSHA Standards Board revealed deep disagreement on the scope and effectiveness of proposed mandates. The subject elicited an unprecedented volume of public comments, with employers attacking the proposed standards as too stringent and costly and labor interests attacking them as too weak. After a revision based on public comments, the revised version considered for approval by the Board received no written comments in support.

Last November, the Board unanimously rejected a proposed standard which would have required all employers in California to address cumulative trauma disorder (CTD). The Board recognizes that CTD is a problem in the workplace; however, it is not a problem in every workplace.

Following the Board's vote, Chair Jere W. Ingram commented, "The loudest single message that has emerged from 6,000 comments which the Board reviewed is that there is virtually no agreement among the affected groups on a means to effectively regulate the prevention of cumulative trauma disorder. It was also felt that the proposed standard was overly broad and would have imposed a costly regulatory burden on a vast number of employers where the occurrence of cumulative trauma disorders have not been identified."

The Board reopens the rulemaking process with a new deadline. In response to a lawsuit filed by labor interests, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge in May imposed an eighteen-month deadline for adoption of a standard.

Other factors could affect the process, however. After several delays, federal OSHA has informally released a proposed national ergonomics standard. Since California operates a state OSHA program, it would be required to adopt a standard at least as effective as a federal OSHA regulation within six months, a factor which could unsettle California's efforts should federal OSHA even make a formal proposal in the federal rulemaking process.

OSHA Administrator Joseph Dear was quoted in the May 26 issue of OSHA Compliance News as telling a convention of industrial hygienists recently that, "The message from Congress is they [members] don't want to address the fastest growing occupational hazard in the country...It is impossible to write an ergonomic standard with such opposition..."

The possibility also remains that the Legislature will reconsider its mandate. At the opening of the current session, Assemblymembers Johnson and Pringle introduced Assembly Bill 50 to repeal the ergonomics mandate. The bill remains in the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee without a hearing date.