Repetitive stress injuries fall through legal gaps
Developing federal workplace guidelines are strictly voluntary
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Tiffany Friesen, 20, loved how strong she felt doing "man's work" at her job as a dockworker last year for Watkins Motor Lines. She never dreamed she'd wind up debilitated, barely able to type or lift a stack of papers.
The West Linn resident would unload hundreds of boxes a day, each filled with as much as 50 pounds of Nike products. After several months of repeating the same motions, she developed tendinitis in her right wrist and received a diagnosis of 70 percent permanent disability. Her wrist stayed swollen to twice its normal size for more than five months.
Friesen received a financial settlement from her company, but she says it doesn't make up for not having a body that works.
"It was really painful, and even now my wrist will cramp up and ache. It took a lot away from me, and being so young, it's a lot of stress," says Friesen.
The company "taught us how to pick up a box so you don't injure your back, but you use your hands constantly, and I didn't know anything about how to prevent this kind of injury," she says.
Friesen isn't alone. In 2004, at least 1,059 people suffered muscular or bone problems on the job in Oregon, according to workers' compensation data. However, companies aren't required by any state or federal regulations to protect workers from such injuries.
In 2001, President Bush repealed a law passed in the waning days of the Clinton administration that would have required new workplace rules to combat repetitive stress injuries. Instead, the current administration is developing industry-specific guidelines. In an effort to save businesses money, the guidelines are voluntary.
This means that most businesses aren't doing anything to mitigate for ergonomic injuries, says Anne Shihadeh, president of ErgoPro Consulting, who lives in Tigard.
"Ninety percent of employers (in the southwest suburbs) would all say, 'Well, we have a catalog of office products that we allow people to buy out of, and there's a label on our chairs that says ergonomic.' There is absolutely more that should be done," says Shihadeh, who ran the city of Portland's award-winning ergonomics program. "What's the No. 2 reason people miss work in this country? Back pain. Redesigning plants and offices isn't a waste of money; it keeps people from missing work."
Because there are no regulatory policies, there are no statistics on which companies are providing ergonomics protections for their employees. Oregon-OSHA has recognized one employer in the region, Willamette Landscape Services of Tualatin, for achieving an exemplary level of occupational safety management. Employees at that company rotate jobs throughout the day to avoid repetitive motion; they also test new equipment such as mowers to ensure a comfortable fit.
"This absolutely makes good economic sense," says area manager Dan Herzing. "It really isn't that expensive, and if an employee gets injured, we offer them a light-duty job. . . . The bottom line is, happy employees usually make for happy customers, and we want to keep them safe so that they're not injuring themselves for their lifetime."
Reach Rebecca Clarren at firstname.lastname@example.org.