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3 Ways to Accelerate Ergonomics in 2013

April 9, 2013
Well, it's happened – 2013 is here. No doubt many of you, like me, have gone through the predictable process of reflecting on the past 12 months and committing to improving something in your lives. Hopefully, you're keeping up with your commitment and have not followed me as I run my normal course of falling off the New Year's resolution bandwagon!

Commitment to self-improvement not only is a personal exercise, but a critical business exercise as well. In the workplace, we call it continuous improvement, and we tend to be more accepting of incremental improvement over time. 

In debriefing with our clients on our 2012 projects and making plans for 2013, several consistent themes have emerged, some of which may sound familiar to you: If you find that your time is tight, your resources (money and people) are stretched and your team keeps setting goals a little higher each year, join the club. Welcome to a 21st century career!

See Also: Environmental and Workplace Health Regulations & Standards

One of the client activities in which I am heavily involved is planning and deploying the ergonomics improvement process across an organization's operations. As with any sustainable process, this requires a management system that details a policy and its scope, goals to strive for and metrics to track, roles and responsibilities to be fulfilled, training requirements and expected activities.

I've written many articles and have spoken often about the key management system elements that drive the success of the leading companies in our benchmarking studies. One thing that companies always have struggled with is finding an efficient way to develop the skills of people in their organizations to effectively assess and improve jobs, as well as measuring progress and using data to drive better performance in the future.

Traditionally, industry has used live classroom training to develop skills, video and paper/pencil-based tools for assessments, spreadsheets to track improvement ideas through to completion, and PowerPoint presentations to communicate best practices. 

Generally, we use these "traditional" methods because they work. We also use them because we're accustomed to them, and we have not put forth effort to find a better way to accomplish our goals. And, I'm sure you will agree that, when you hear the word "traditional," the last word that comes to mind is "efficient."

Over the last year, we've driven our organization to develop a 21st century approach to deploying the ergonomics improvement process. We have an extremely experienced and intelligent group, and they've come up with three key themes to accelerate ergonomics improvement. I hope they are helpful to you:

Flip the classroom.  

Data at your side.    

Analyze the past to  drive the future.

Flip the Classroom

Traditional ergonomic assessment skill training meant live training at a predetermined venue for groups of 15 to 20 people. This style of training still exists, and it is the classroom approach to which most of us are accustomed. Unfortunately, no matter how great the instructor is, the most we can garner at the end of a day is knowledgeable people. Instructors are limited by the amount of information a person can take in over the course of a day and the inherent challenges with teaching in a classroom environment. An added hurdle to good skill development is that by the time learners get a chance to apply their knowledge in their own work environment, the instructor is long gone, leaving them to answer their own questions as they develop skills and confidence. Fact is, adults learn best by doing and must have instructor-supervised application time to become skillful.

Two Colorado chemistry teachers, Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams, identified this challenge and decided to try to improve it by implementing a blended learning model in their classrooms beginning in 2007. This approach, known as the "flipped classroom," has been proven to significantly enhance learning and has been popularized by Salman Khan's nonprofit organization, the Khan Academy. 

The flipped classroom uses technology to engage and educate students, in combination with classroom instruction. In the Bergman-Sams model, students view online videos and video podcasts at home, or outside the classroom, prior to attending class. During class, students complete exercises and assignments based on the content covered online. In the classroom, teachers answer questions, illustrate important facts and data and are available to provide one-on-one help to those who need it. This approach has been shown to be more effective than traditional classroom instruction alone, furthering students' ability to learn and grasp the information. 

So, why can't this approach be used in industry? Well, it can. Imagine using a blended approach to ergonomics training, combining the efficiency of online training with the personal touch of traditional, in-person instruction in a follow-up workshop session. Ergonomics team members are introduced to key concepts, principles and methods through online e-learning courses and exercises. Later, during the instructor-led workshop, the team learns by doing. 

The end result of this blended model for ergonomics team training is a group of skilled people who are confident in their ability to complete the job improvement process. Not only that, they've got a substantial head start on the job improvement process for a large number of jobs in your facility.

Data  at  Your Side

Mobile technology and our increasingly wireless world present excellent opportunities to push more efficiency into our ergonomics process. The rapid advances in mobile and wireless technology continue to knock down the barriers between you and the information you need and want to share. 

Just as apps replace applications, and Bluetooth and WiFi have made cable connections obsolete, we now reasonably can expect – and perhaps demand – that all of our critical information is where we want it, when we need it. The opportunities to collect, share and communicate information quickly truly are extraordinary.

Imagine no longer using paper and pencil methods to assess risk at a job, in favor of completing your assessment and the various calculations using a tablet that simultaneously shares your assessment findings with others in your organization. Similarly, as you search for countermeasures to your identified issues, you can review the solutions that successfully have been implemented elsewhere and quickly refer to ergonomic design guidelines to help you specify critical dimensions to make the solutions truly fit the worker.

The end result of introducing mobile technology to your job improvement process is efficient data collection, task prioritization and best practice sharing. Additionally, people always are connected to the data they need, which will drive better discussion and accelerate decision making and solution implementation.

Analyze  the Past to Drive  the Future

Experienced ergonomics teams are quite adept at using assessment tools to identify key issues and then fixing the issues using their creativity and ergonomic design principles. However, to truly advance the ergonomics process, more is needed.

Collecting a mass of information to fix only current issues is wasteful; it stops short of using this data to its fullest benefit. Leaders of the ergonomics process must capitalize on all the work completed by their teams by analyzing and categorizing this information to identify trends, learning targets and design standards so that the issues they just fixed do not re-occur. 

As any analyst will tell you, quality information collected in a timely fashion drives good decisions. Once again, technology is up to the task. A well-designed database, accessible via mobile technology, simplifies the collection of this key information. 

The end result of completing this additional level of analysis is that the root cause of the issues you face at the plant today get communicated to those who design your product, processes or equipment and therefore have a chance of getting addressed in the future. Doing this pushes you up the Ergonomics Maturity Curve and makes your entire ergonomics process more effective.

The three key themes presented here are not exhaustive, but they start us on a path to better process through technology. Those professionals charged with implementing and managing ergonomics improvement processes clearly are at an inflection point. It's clear to my colleagues and I that we, as ergonomics professionals, must take full advantage of emerging online and mobile technology to help us meet the challenges of the 21st century career.

So my question this month is…

Will we use technology to meet these new learning and information management expectations, or are we too … traditional?

James Mallon, CPE, is a vice president with Humantech, which delivers practical solutions that impact safety, quality and productivity. Humantech believes people make productivity happen. For additional information, visit or call 734-663-6707. Mallon can be contacted directly at [email protected].

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