213178 A cautionary tale: How a powerful interest group used the initiative process to overturn Washington's ergonomics rule

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Katherine J. Hall, PhD , Northwest Center for Public Health Practice, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
BACKGROUND: This case study examines public participation in the Washington State Ergonomics Rule, the only rule in state history to be overturned by citizen initiative. METHODS: This case study used multiple methods: content analysis, historical research, and interview. RESULTS: Rulemaking was initiated by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) in response to a high incidence and cost of repetitive stress claims in a dozen industries, including construction. Employers characterized the rule as an example of governmental over-regulation that created a hostile economic climate for business in the state. They coined the phrase “job-killing ergonomics rule.” Workers organized as “working families for safer jobs” and framed the issue as prevention of pain and suffering. An extensive public participation process failed to find common ground and left the business community unsatisfied. After the rule was adopted—but before it took effect—opponents launched an initiative campaign. The initiative passed in 2003 and not only overturned the rule, but prohibited L&I from proposing a revised rule, unless the federal government required it. DISCUSSION: This paper focuses on the role of one of a powerful interest group, the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), and the role of a misleading advertising campaign in an initiative election. It provides a cautionary tale for health and safety professionals in the 27 states and territories with initiative and referendum processes. Despite a long-held preference for rulemaking, situation-specific solutions may work better in some complex and adversarial situations.

Learning Objectives:
Describe the interaction between rulemaking and citizen initiative in states that have an initiative process Identify the type of “wicked” problems that are better suited to small-scale, situation-specific solutions, rather than broad-based rulemaking

Keywords: Ergonomics, Policy/Policy Development

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: Ten years of experience in the School of Public Health at University of Washington, including nine years in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. Worked on CDC grant looking at policy aspects of Washington State Ergonomics Rule. This was my dissertation topic for my PhD in Communication.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.