Four years have passed since voters threw out Washington State’s ergonomics rule; it’s been six years since the federal standard was repealed. What’s happened since then?

Then: In the late 1990s, ergonomics was a hot-button workplace safety issue at state and federal levels. California was the first in the nation to adopt a standard in 1997, a standard triggered when there is evidence of repetitive motion injuries. In 2000, Washington State adopted a more stringent rule, requiring employers with "caution zone jobs" to identify and fix the hazard before injuries occurred. At the same time, the federal government adopted an ergonomic workplace standard, which was scheduled to be effective in October 2001.

The Good Fruit Grower reported on the Washington tree fruit industry’s opposition to the state rule that would have defined many orchard tasks as "caution zone jobs" and required the hazard (such as holding a hand above the head for four hours) to be eliminated to the extent it wasn’t technologically or economically feasible. The federal standard was repealed by legislation signed by President George W. Bush in March 2001. Washington’s ergonomics rule was overturned by the voters in November 2003, before it could be implemented or be appealed to the state supreme court.

Now: The ergonomics issue did heighten awareness of agriculture’s difficulties with compliance, said Karen Lewis, Washington State –University Extension educator for Grant County.

Additionally, agriculture is now a more active part of the worker-safety debate. For example, three tree fruit industry representatives (Lewis, Deborah Carter of the Northwest Horticultural Council, and Jim Doornink, Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission) are serving on the advisory board of University of Washington’s Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center. The center is charged with education outreach, research, and developing solutions to help reduce farm injuries. In California, a team of University of California researchers at the Agricultural Ergonomics Research Center at Davis is focused solely on ergonomics.

With more attention paid to the lack of proven ergonomic solutions available to agriculture, universities are seeking federal funds for agricultural research projects. For example, at UC-Davis, several major projects studying mechanical devices or interventions for the wine grape, nursery, cotton, and tree fruit industries have been funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Agricultural engineers are working on prone-position carts for hand harvest of crops like strawberries, and weight transfer harnesses worn by field workers have been tested.

In 2005, the University of Washington conducted baseline studies of the motions of apple pickers on mechanical platforms. The university continues to seek funding for further research on platform orchard tasks. The idea is to find out if there are potential ergonomic problems and learn if problems can be mitigated by changing the design of the machines, for example, Lewis said. "It’s important to note that industry is interested in working with UW to find solutions. UW is working valiantly to secure research funds."