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Environmental Alert: California Ergonomics Rule Goes Into Effect

Although highly criticized and subjected to several lawsuits that altered its applicability and requirements, Cal/OSHA's ergonomics regulation went into effect July 3, 1997. It applies when at least two employees performing identical work activities are diagnosed with repetitive motion injuries within a 12-month period. The diagnosis of a repetitive motion injury needs to come from a licensed physician.

Printers will have to implement programs designed to minimize repetitive motion injuries. The programs must involve worksite evaluation, control of exposures (i.e., risk factors) that caused the injuries, and employee training. Employers with fewer than 10 employees were originally exempted, but this provision was struck by a Sacramento Superior Court judge on September 5, 1997. The judge also struck a provision that would have prevented employers from having to continually experiment to resolve the source of injuries. Once the employer addressed the cause of the repetitive motion injury, compliance with the regulation was granted unless Cal/ OSHA could show a better and not unreasonable more costly alternative.

The judge also struck the words "predominantly" and "objectively" from the applicability paragraph. These words provided a great level of protection for employers by narrowing the definition of an injury resulting from repetitive motions found in the workplace. The California Chamber of Commerce will appeal these Superior Court decisions.

During the Superior Court hearing, the California Orthopedic Association filed a brief asking for a judicial reversal of the rule. The brief questioned the scientific support for the rule and claimed that the rule is premature. The physicians said they were not comfortable being required to determine the nature of an injury where the science and remedy are not clear. This means that employers will be expected to correct and minimize exposures when the medical community cannot explain what caused the injury, they said. The September ruling did not address this petition.

Author: Gary A. Jones, GATF, Manager, Environmental, Health, and Safety Affairs


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