A confrontation in California between organized labor and business, with workplace ergonomics at its core, is in the headlines at the end of 2007. It offers a foretaste of a wider battle that could occur if the federal government attempts to promulgate a new OSHA standard aimed at reducing ergonomics-related injuries. With US presidential election campaigning in full swing, the topic has entered the political debate.
In California, workplace safety regulators have charged that the duties performed by housekeepers at a hotel – scrubbing, bed making, vacuuming – violate the state’s repetitive-motion rules. According to the Los Angeles Times, which reported the development, a citation issued by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health identified eight infractions at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel.
The citation was issued after a complaint was filed with the agency by two Hilton housekeepers and a labor health advocacy group that supports the Unite Here union, which wants to unionize the employees.
Under rules adopted in 1997, California is the only state that explicitly requires employers to minimize the risk of repetitive-motion injuries through training and, if necessary, by redesigning job tasks.
Recent studies have noted growing injury rates among housekeepers, particularly at upscale hotels that have added heavier mattresses, furniture and appliances to rooms.
Housekeeper Adela Barrientos, one of the two named in the complaint, said her work had become harder in the nine years she’d been with the LAX Hilton. "They keep putting more things in the room," she said in the citation, but haven’t reduced her assignment to clean 16 rooms each day.
The axed federal ergonomics standard – the Ergonomics Program Standard of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – was expected to offer workers like Barrientos a level of protection against occupational injuries.
OSHA had announced the standard as a means of addressing "the significant risk of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) confronting employees in various jobs in general industry workplaces." According to The Ergonomics Report™, a publication for readers with a professional interest in Ergonomics that has closely followed the issue, the business community lobbied against the standard. Its spokesmen argued that the OSHA rules would cost them $20 billion to more than $100 billion a year, that they federalized the workplace and were based on "junk science."
Unions welcomed the rules. "The new standard will prevent hundreds of thousands of crippling repetitive strain injuries each year," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney at the time. "Workers in poultry plants, meat packing, auto assembly, computer operation, health care, service industries and others in high-risk jobs will finally have much-needed protection."
The OSHA standard was too short lived to be put to the test. Introduced in the last days of the Democratic presidency of Bill Clinton, it was repealed soon after Republican President George W. Bush took office in 2001 and replaced in 2002 with voluntary rules. Federal officials can cite employers for failing to prevent ergonomic injuries under a "general duty" provision of federal workplace safety laws, but the burden of proof is high, according to Len Welsh in the LA Times article. Welsh is head of the state agency, which is known as Cal/OSHA
The federal battle is still on the horizon. In California, it has only just started. The hotel plans to appeal the Cal/OSHA citation.
SOURCES: LA Times; The Ergonomics Report™