Washington Has Plenty of Dumb Laws, and We're About to Get One More

Sep 18, 2002

We've all heard of dumb laws, government rules and regulations that no longer make sense, if they ever did. In King County, for example, only one taxi company is allowed to take passengers to and from SeaTac airport. All other cabs can take people to the airport, but must drive back empty.

Under state law, a vending machine can be attached to a public utility pole, but it must be mounted at least twelve feet off the ground. In Washington it is also illegal to use an x-ray to see if a pair of shoes fit properly. It is illegal to damage or destroy another person's beer bottle without written consent (the penalty per violation is fifty cents), and it is against the law to go out in public if you have a cold.

Washington is not the only place with dumb laws. In Portland, no person may drive down a busy street more than twice per night. In Yamhill, Oregon it is illegal to predict the future. In Arizona camel hunting is against the law, and in Galesburg, Illinois you risk a visit from the police for burning bird feathers.

Most dumb laws are long-forgotten statutes that don't hurt anyone. But our state is about to set a new standard for pointless laws by beginning serious enforcement of one of the silliest ever devised, a set of rules that will have a deep and lasting impact on our economy and will effect every person in the state. The state Department of Labor and Industries has announced Washington Administrative Code regulation number 296-62-051, ergonomics rules designed to control the kind of movements people can make at work.

The rules are so cumbersome that Governor Locke suspended their enforcement for two years. He has ordered state regulators to start issuing fines and other penalties beginning July 1st, 2004.

At first glance the purpose of the rules appears noble and good - to reduce the number of workplace injuries caused by repetitive movement and stress. A close look at the details, though, reveals that the regulations create many more problems than they solve. They require employers to "reduce hazards below the criteria in Appendix B, or to the degree feasible."

A look at Appendix B shows that employers must use a "Job Strain Index" for each job to assess "posture, force, repetition, repeated impacts, vibration, duration, work pace, task variability and recovery cycles." Then the law requires employers to map work areas and precisely measure "reaches, heights, seating, surfaces, load size, shape, weight and packaging."

And it gets worse. Under the ergonomics rules employers will be required to do the following (Note: this is not a complete list):

  • Count how many times employees lift 10 pounds each day.
  • Count how many times employees lift their hands over their head.
  • Count how often employees bend their necks more than 45 degrees.
  • Count how many times employees bend their wrists more than 30 degrees.
  • Limit how often an employee can squat down.
  • Limit how often an employee can kneel down.

In the regulations, a typical instruction to employers says, "Find out how many times each employee lifts per minute."

Employers will find no relief in that comforting phrase "to the degree feasible." The law says state regulators, not employers, will decide what is feasible. Once enforcement begins, the consequences for violating the rules will be severe. Employers can be charged up to $70,000 per infraction.

The state says the new rules will result in savings through fewer workplace injuries, but business groups estimate the rules will cost $725 million to implement. If the rules did bring savings as claimed, then no penalties should be necessary. Most business people want happy, healthy employees, so it would make more sense for the state to drop the heavy-handed enforcement and make the ergonomics rules voluntary.

In any case, the rules are unnecessary because workplace safety is improving. The kind of injuries addressed by the ergonomics rules have dropped 28% since 1990, and the rate continues to fall. The ergonomics rules reflect the attitude of some in government that ordinary citizens cannot be trusted to provide safe and reasonable working conditions. The top-down, mandatory approach starts with the assumption that people will be bad unless government forces them to be good.

The result of all this regulatory overdrive will be to make it harder to run a business in Washington. The state already has one of the heaviest tax burdens in the country, a labyrinth of land use and water management rules, and a high minimum wage that discourages job creation (our unemployment rate is now the highest in the country). It may get to a point, if it hasn't arrived already, where employers spend more time filling out government paperwork than running their business.

Economists recently reported that the recession will last longer than expected in Washington state. Now we know some reasons why.

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