Safety Catalyst: Motivating Ergonomic Behavior

It's a fitting time to take a leadership approach to ergonomics.

Many organizations have applied successful engineering interventions to reduce ergonomic-related injuries. And it is important to continue to utilize the best tools and workstation designs and modifications available.

But many companies have settled into a plateau of diminishing returns. After engaging in aggressive redesign and purchasing interventions, they still are beset with ergonomic challenges such as worker resistance to using ergonomic equipment, an inability to fix uncontrollable environments, an aging work force with specific injury-prevention needs or a culture where management expects instant fixes for cumulative problems.

Strategic leadership (or un-common sense) suggests if you are not improving results with your efforts, then you should try a different approach. Defining ergonomics as improving the fit between people and their tasks clears the way to bring workers closer to their work and to influence behavioral change (beyond just equipment design).

Leaders incite change by motivating receptivity and trial of new behaviors, transferring critical mental and physical skills and reinforcing improved performance all with a goal of setting positive, safe default habits.

Seven Steps

In a June 2006 presentation at ASSE's annual Professional Development Conference, I proposed a seven-step approach for motivating ergonomic behavior, based on seeing significant results with companies worldwide:

1. Set and assess ergonomic-motivating objectives. What are your expectations for motivating managers and workers? Are these realistic? For example, strategic executive objectives might include allocating resources that match planned-for returns; actively leading ergonomic interventions; and having reasonable timelines for return on investment (e.g., after an intervention, 6 months may be a realistic minimum for seeing reductions in soft-tissue lost-time injuries).

Worker objectives might include taking responsibility for their own actions (rather than blaming bad design); applying ergonomic decision-making and practices to off-work tasks; making appropriate adjustments for work tool usage; and thinking and planning ahead.

2. Identify barriers to ergonomic receptivity and behavioral change. Strategists can realize significant success by removing obstacles to improved performance. Target perceptions that ergonomics is "for others" or solely a tooling issue. Target the belief that employees are too set in their ways or too busy to change, or the perception that there are not tangible benefits for trying out new actions. Also, target the association between ergonomics and the perception that it is an attempt to squeeze higher productivity from them.

3. Energize all. Communicate personal objectives of ergonomics (increased comfort, safety, reduced stress, less wear-down). Move beyond a prevention-only approach toward one that promotes personal benefits, such as becoming better at favorite sports and hobbies. Find ways to help employees become successful.

4. Spark involvement. Employ a simultaneous topdown/bottom-up "scissors" approach that elicits interaction from everyone. Managers can help select the leading ergonomic indicators they deem valuable. Supervisors are involved in setting the timing for and reinforcing action changes. Some employees might be trained to become "peer catalysts," who are agents of ergonomic behavioral change. And all workers can select and monitor personal ergonomic objectives.

5. Focus on home, as well as work. Where there is worker resistance to ergonomics, you often can create default habits by first showing off-work applications. Train employees to make better ergonomic decisions in personal purchasing and protecting loved ones from injury.

6. Build critical ergonomic skill sets, both mental and physical. These injury-preventing skill sets incorporate mental activities such as seeing your own level of accepted risk; directing attention at will; recalling policies/procedures/techniques; understanding and applying underlying ergonomic principles, team orientation and forward thinking to envision future repercussions and physical activities such as honing alignment and position for the most effective force transfer; maximizing leverage to maximize effective strength; heightening balance; improving eye-hand coordination; boosting flexibility/range of motion; reducing fatigue; controlling breathing; and effective preparation and recovery methods. All of these skills can be taught.

7. Make it (self) reinforcing. Alert leaders to all ergonomic plans and intervention results as early as possible in the process. Encourage all employees managers and employees to speak the same ergonomic language. Elicit individual worker ergonomic modifications that others also might want to adopt. Recognize ergo heroes. Apply methods that raise the kinesthetic "feel" for safer tool usage and work. Raise everyone's ability to monitor the level of tension/forces present or building in their own body.

Ergonomics often has been approached by experts who externally engineer out risks from the work environment. While this paradigm has been shown to help reduce many injuries, you can take ergonomic performance to a higher level by elevating the ergonomic behavior of workers, supervisors and managers.

Robert Pater (rpater@movesmart.com, www.mastering safety.com) is managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates.

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