Washington Governor Gary Locke announced March 5th that he has ordered the Department of Labor and Industries to delay enforcement of the state's ergonomics rule by two years in each phase of its scheduled implementation.

Enforcing the rule with actual penalties now won't happen until July 1, 2005, for the first set of employers falling under the scope of the standard.

Locke said he supports the rule and would veto any legislative attempt to repeal it. But labor groups call the delay a serious setback, and say it gives opponents more time to try to kill the measure.

"There is fear in some industries that these new rules might require costly investments in new equipment, ergonomic consultants and detailed studies," Locke stated in a press release. "I believe these fears are unfounded. However, as the national leader it is incumbent upon us to proceed carefully... We must be certain that the Department has had ample opportunity to provide more consultation services to employers."

The announcement comes after a Blue Ribbon Panel on Ergonomics appointed by Locke stated on March 4th that:

  • The demonstration projects that were set up by the Department of L&I to test the ergonomics rules met their objectives and proved the rule is understandable.
  • The educational materials developed by the Department to explain the rule are effective and widely available.
  • The rules are clearly written, and together with the supporting educational materials, are understandable.
  • Enforcement policies and procedures developed by the Department provide a foundation for fair and consistent enforcement.

The nine-member Blue Ribbon Panel was composed primarily of business representatives - including from Boeing, General Motors and Perdue Farms - and academics, with two representatives from labor.

The state ergonomics rule was adopted by the Department of L&I in May 2000 and is scheduled to be phased-in over six years. It requires that employers, with the assistance of their employees, find and fix workplace hazards causing strains, sprains and repetitive motion injuries when those changes are "economically feasible."

But corporate lobbyists could try to repeal the ergonomics standard. State labor groups say there are "significant forces" within the Governor's Office who are attempting to convince Locke to weaken his stance in terms of implementing the rule. Said Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO:

"It's great news for the business organizations whose hysterical campaign of misinformation about the rule succeeded in generating enough outrage and confusion to achieve the delay. After spending the last decade successfully resisting efforts to address our state's and our nation's number one job safety issue, business groups now have two extra years to try to kill our state's ergonomics rule all together. And make no mistake, that's exactly what they plan to do. They don't want more time for ergonomics education, they want to kill the rule.

"The fact is, the state has already gone to extraordinary lengths to accommodate business interests in the rule's language, from the unprecedented six-year phase-in period to requiring hazard correction only if it is "economically feasible." It was business groups that asked for the Blue Ribbon Panel to study the issue. They got that, too. But they didn't like the results, so now they want more."

In addition, Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO's national safety and health director in Washington D.C., reports that several corporate lobbyists are being dispatched from D.C. to Olympia, the state capital, to coordinate the repeal of the state's ergonomics rule.

Labor groups are urging members to defend the rule in a grassroots telephone and email campaign to state lawmakers.