Study shows Locke should drop ergonomics rule

Guest Columnist

Recently, a key Mayo Clinic study found that computer keyboards do not cause carpal-tunnel syndrome, a condition characterized by pain, tingling and numbness in the wrist and hand.

So significant is the finding that Gov. Gary Locke should order his Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) to suspend its sweeping new ergonomics rule. Carpal-tunnel syndrome (CTS), thought to be caused by repetitive motion, such as prolonged computer work, has been a linchpin of the state’s new regulation.

The Mayo Clinic researchers studied 257 office workers who typed between six and seven hours a day. Twenty-seven participants complained of CTS symptoms, but in-depth medical exams showed only mild CTS in 18 of the 27 participants and more serious forms in nine participants – about the same rate as the general population.

Dr. Benn Smith, a neurologist and director of the electromyography lab at Mayo, found that CTS symptoms are often linked to other factors. For example, researchers found that some people are born with smaller diameter carpal tunnels, which increase chances for the disorder. For some unknown reasons, Smith reported, middle-age women are at a higher risk and conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and pregnancy can trigger the disorder.

The Mayo Clinic data flies in the face of claims by L&I that CTS is responsible for 35 percent of the 31,100 work-related injuries in Washington in 1999, more than a quarter of which were arm/hand injuries.

Dr. Matthew Putnam, director of hand surgery at the University of Minnesota, told reporters he was not surprised by the results of the Mayo study, and he noted that much of the public’s knowledge about carpal-tunnel syndrome is based on Opseudoscience, which may not be provable or true.

Nonetheless, state ergonomics rules and workers compensation regulations assume that any CTS condition is work-related. That unfairly puts an overwhelming financial burden on employers.

You might think this doesn’t affect you, but it does. Higher regulatory and workers compensation costs for private employers are passed along in the form of higher prices for products and services. Private employers aren’t the only ones affected. The state of Washington is the single largest employer in the state – not to mention county and city employees – so these invalid rules also have a direct impact on taxpayers.

It’s time for Gov. Locke to toss out our stateOs ergonomics rule and tell L&I to start over.