Ergonomics Part 3: Achieving Worker Buy-In

All the effective risk assessment and risk management strategies in the world will do your company little good without having workers on board when your ergonomics program hits the factory floor.

So says ergonomist Kent Hatcher of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Humantech Inc. Gaining worker buy-in should begin early in the process of designing your ergonomics program, and it should involve a very simple strategy: talking to your workers.

Soliciting operator input -- whether through interviews, observations or just good old-fashioned chit-chat -- can help safety professionals avoid making changes that could backfire or aren't feasible; give safety managers a sense of "what they've tried in the past and what's failed"; and reveal procedural or process obstacles that aren't apparent to anyone but the workers on the factory floor, according to Hatcher.

For example, if a safety professional plans to order a new piece of equipment for a machine to improve its ergonomics, Hatcher says it's important for that safety official first to first talk to the operator.

"I want to make sure the guy who's been working on the same machine on the same line for 25 years doesn't come in on Monday morning and rest his coffee cup on this piece of machinery I've spent all this time developing because he had no input in it," Hatcher says. "Any [ergonomics] recommendations you make will have much more buy-in and will be much more feasible if you've solicited operator input."

Keeping workers involved in the process increases the chances that your ergonomic program will incorporate the real-world, hands-on ideas needed for the program to be successfully implemented on the factory floor.

"Most jobs, oftentimes, will have a standard operating policies and procedures manual that the guy working there for 25 years has never read," Hatcher says. It's important, Hatcher explains, to find out from workers how things really get done on the factor floor and to "build that into the design."

"When I go into a plant somewhere, I'm not the expert on the job," Hatcher says. "I think that's the first thing to admit: that the expert on the job is the person who's down there doing it everyday."

Achieving worker buy-in also is part of the larger goal of making ergonomics a permanent part of the safety culture, Hatcher adds. "Ergonomics is a continuous improvement process. It's not something where you buy this lift table or this height-adjustable conveyer belt and you can sort of go away and leave [the workers] to their own devices."

For the worker who's been at the plant a long time and has seen safety initiatives come and go (usually when "injury rates are up or someone got hurt really bad"), it's easy to become a bit jaded. That's why it's important for ergonomics to be a proactive safety process and not "knee-jerk economics," Hatcher explains.

Even so, it's not uncommon for entrenched work forces to offer resistance to change in the form of, "we've always done it this way, this is the way we do it," he explains. The reality is that gaining worker buy-in likely will require some salesmanship on the part of the safety professional.

"People don't like change, but they like being changed even less," Hatcher stresses. "Somewhere in the middle you really have to sell the improvement."

The methods for promoting your program will vary, depending on the type of work environment. But in general, Hatcher believes that "nothing excites people like success, and nothing increases buy-in like success." One way to establish that success to build momentum is to identify your "champion."

"There usually are one or two people on the factory floor who lead the group, both in terms of morale and productivity," Hatcher explains. "If you can get those people with you, and if you can get the biggest sourpuss on your side, then you're on your way."

The other group that needs to be on board is upper management.

"If you don't have the worker buy-in, and you don't have management commitment, it's not going to infuse into the culture," Hatcher notes.

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