Engaging ergonomics

December 1, 2007
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If you’ve “picked off the low hanging fruit” through cost-effective ergonomic design and retooling — and still have related injuries, consider getting your people more involved as part of the solution. Experience shows that motivating all levels of organizational members to become more receptive to ergonomics and to practice better ergonomic behaviors can result in greater receptivity and morale and significant reductions in ergonomic injuries.

Bringing workers closer to their work can help with difficult-to-control environments, is portable to wherever people are — in multiple locations and environments, at work and at home — and can boost involvement and morale while heightening worker abilities that transfer to other needed arenas.

Leaders, of course, don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Equipping workers with new strategies and techniques (as well as the motivation to apply them at work and at home) will never make a poorly designed job great; but when well done, it can at least make a poorly designed job much less bad. Even when an organization has realized a good measure of success in reducing ergonomic injuries, a different approach may be called for to realize further gains.

Methods for ergo motivation

Experience demonstrates there are proven methods for reaching a range of organizational members, enlisting their interest and receptivity in making and supporting ergonomic changes. These include:

1 — Identify barriers to acceptance. (See “Valid doubts” sidebar.)

2 — Weed out any associations of “ergonomics” with negative events.
Consistently communicate that the aim of ergonomics is to boost comfort, safety, peace of mind and reduce body wear-down and negative stress.

3 — Elicit involvement, as early as possible, on all levels.
Be sure to strongly request input in ergonomic concerns, as well as in personal ergonomic “solutions” that individual workers have devised. Credit them accordingly. If you are trying to develop positive momentum, strategically select pilot areas for initial interventions that are more likely to show success. There is always time later to tackle the tough areas, once you have more buy-in and confidence among your ergonomic interveners.

4 — Focus on at-home as well as at-work applications.
One key to personally motivating people is to offer them methods they see will help them in their favorite activities. Develop a portable ergonomics intervention that teaches principles, going beyond merely expecting compliance with latest tools and “fixes.”

5 — Help workers become more in control of uncontrollable environments.
Let them know that management’s job is to make a workplace as safe as feasible. But there are many factors that can’t be controlled that affect each of us — outside environment, traffic to and from work, and many more. Each of us can take more personal control of ourselves. Focus on showing workers how to make small adjustments that will result in clearly perceivable improvements in comfort and lessened strain.

6 — Show workers how to harness stress as a positive force.
The aim of ergonomics, like stress power, is to become in control of oneself. The promise of boosting self-control is motivating; and the increased ability to do so even more so.

7 — Focus on developing mental attention control skills.
When they are well applied, attention control skills can boost range of motion, balance and available strength.

8 — Address the needs of special populations.
Female workers, aging workers and others may be physiologically more prone to knee injuries, lifting injuries, etc.

9 — Reinforce consistently positive ergonomics results.
Move away from a “program-of-the-month” mentality. Ergonomics cannot be viewed, nor accepted and supported, with that sort of mindset on the part of your employees, supervisors and managers.

10 — Set realistic expectations of payback.
Let managers know in advance that it may be likely that a carpal tunnel syndrome intervention will lead to an increase in early reports, but this is a good thing, an opportunity to deal with problems on a lower and less costly level. The strain and sprain intervention you put into place will likely show statistical results in injury reduction within six months, not six weeks. But there are other measures of ergonomic success, leading indicators, from positive interventions that can be charted almost immediately.

Watch for, chart and communicate all signs of ergonomic success, especially personal reports that go well beyond statistical injury reduction, to everyone.

SIDEBAR: Creating momentum for change

Motivation means “creating movement,” engaging in a change of actions. It’s critical to first specifically understand what we expect others to do differently. Expected ergonomic changes might include:
• Open-mindedly consider new design interventions;
• Think and plan ahead;
• Adapt best judgment to tasks;
• Use equipment and tools in the most desirable manner;
• Employ provided ergonomic training;
• Alert others to ergonomic problems;
• Report issues at an early level;
• Participate willingly in ergonomic pilot projects;
• Maintain a positive mindset about the benefits of ergonomics;
• Improve safety performance overall;
• Apply ergonomic principles to at-home activities.

SIDEBAR: Valid doubts

I’ve discovered workers generally have valid reasons for what others might call “motivation problems.” These can include:
• “Won’t happen to me” thinking;
• Seeing ergonomics as solely a problem of design, tooling or equipment;
• Thinking of ergonomics as totally the responsibility of management;
• Having a negative association with anything “ergonomic” (“Just another way to reduce staffing.” “All they really want is to squeeze us to do even more work at the same pay.” etc.);
• Habits (“We’ve always done it that way.”);
• Don’t see ergonomics as a problem, see it as only a small thing;
• Thinking it’s too late for to make adjustments (“I already have joint weakness, any program is too late for me.” “It’s just part of getting older.” “C’mon, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”);
• Too busy to try something;
• Not interested (don’t see results, don’t see intervention methods as practical, don’t see it’s within an individual’s ability to change, see it as “flavor of the month,” etc.);

Managers and leaders have their own concerns that stymie efforts to motivate them to support ergonomic interventions:
• “Wear-down is natural, a cost of doing business or working with an aging workforce”;
• Cost-effective? Is there a return on investment?
• Suspicion that many soft tissue injuries are, in fact, faked;
• Don’t see time to make meaningful intervention, especially with thin workforce;
• Ergonomics, lifting, body position, etc., seen mostly as a motivation issue, blaming workers for their resistance;
• Fear of opening a can of worms/Pandora’s box;
• Perception that “Our product and process is a benign one”;
• Frustration that ergonomic problems still exist after previously approving and expending resources;
• Don’t think cumulative/long-term, especially with quarter-to-quarter statistical pressures;
• Expect instant results;
• Expect to engineer all problems away.

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