Moving from data to action is a step many organizations struggle with on their journey to a world-class ergonomics process. Providing the right people with the most effective education and setting clear expectations will make this step much easier. This conclusion was drawn from a recent conversation we had with a group of like-minded safety professionals from various industries looking to benchmark their ergonomics process. At the 2019 Humantech User Summit, as best practices were being shared, another theme emerged: how technology is (supposed to be) helping. This article will share the key points from that conversation and detail the confounding variables that make taking action difficult.
THE STRUGGLE TO “GET THINGS DONE”
None of the attendees were just starting out their ergonomics process, so the feedback was coming from companies who had begun completing risk assessments or had completed an entire risk map. Needless to say, though, the output is useful for organizations just beginning their ergonomics journey. The attendees shared their frustrations with triaging the (sometimes massive amount of) data they were collecting and pulling out the key concepts to help them get leadership to act. The main themes were:
• Finding the right improvements.
• Convincing upper management to support the implementation of those improvements.
Once these were established, the group took a step back and defined common barriers and strategies to overcome them.
UNDERSTANDING THE BARRIERS
Everyone is busy running at 110% because organizations are doing more with less. Gone are the days of three-, four- and five-day training sessions that were deemed necessary to ramp up everyone’s education in ergonomics. It is just not feasible to pull important people away from important tasks for that long. So how do you train and verify learning more efficiently? Blended learning was the answer. More on this later.
It was clear to everyone involved in this conversation that the ergonomics team was to “do ergonomics,” but there was confusion about the exact roles each person and/or department was to play in the process. Digging deeper, the group had an “aha” moment and realized that clear roles and responsibilities were missing.
Technology is advancing very quickly and, as a result, risk assessment data is getting to us more quickly and in larger amounts. This obviously is a very good thing, but it can lead to paralysis by analysis. Of course, completing risk assessments and understanding root causes are integral parts of the process, but assessments alone have never fixed a workstation. It’s taking the action to change the environment around the worker that will result in risk reduction and the associated drop in injury and costs.
STRATEGY #1: BLENDED LEARNING
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are the wave of the future and super cool, but give me emotional intelligence and blended learning as the accelerators in an ergonomics process. This does sound a bit old-school (because I am), but effective education and explicit understanding of the role of “fixers” in an ergonomics process are most important in achieving risk reduction.
The technologies being released with regard to motion capture and wearables all fit in nicely with digital transformation and the Industrial Revolution 4.0. These tools and technologies will undoubtedly be valuable in collecting more granular information much faster than ever before, but let’s be clear: They will help you collect data, but they will not help you implement improvements.
It was consistent across the group—each organization had a team of assessors collecting risk assessment data but there were inconsistencies in how they planned to implement improvements. That is to be expected, considering the various industries represented. But whether an organization leverages its maintenance team, the lean group, or continuous improvement teams to implement improvements, the knowledge required and expectations should be consistent.
This was the perfect application for blended learning, and here’s why: Taking a series of numbers, such as a set of ergonomics design guidelines, and applying them to a situation requires thought and experience. Therefore, someone who is responsible for ensuring proper design of a workstation should be educated in the principles of design and should also have the opportunity to experience using those principles in hands-on practice.
Educating a team of “fixers” in design principles and design guidelines can be done relatively quickly in on-demand e-learning format—in about an hour if the training is well done. Very efficient. But the skill development doesn’t stop there; the hands-on workshop element of blended learning takes those principles and numbers and creates a scenario in which to apply that education.
Here is an example: determining the height of a table at a packing station. According to design guidelines for ergonomics, the optimal hand working height is 42” to 44” from the standing surface, so you would think that defining a packing table height wouldn’t take much thought. But in reality, the height of the table depends on the size of the container the product is going into. That is why, when asked a generic question of how high a table or conveyor should be, the answer should always be “It depends.”
This example—leveraging e-learning content to educate teams in a setting that does not require lengthy classroom time, and then applying the principles and design guidelines with hands-on practice under guidance from a professional—highlights the benefit of blended learning.
STRATEGY #2: DEFINING ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
Once the group realized that a blended learning approach was the best way to educate, the conversation pivoted to ownership of the improvements. This meant defining and assigning the role and responsibility to everyone involved and providing individuals with the necessary education. Here are a few simplified examples, recognizing that this is not a complete list:
• Ergonomics team—responsible for completing risk assessments, defining root causes, communicating priorities to plant leadership.
• Continuous improvement team—responsible for brainstorming and implementing effective improvements, ensuring improvements are sustained.
• Advanced engineering—responsible for initial design of workstations/areas/tooling to ensure new equipment entering facilities is free of risk factors that cause musculoskeletal/soft tissue disorders.
• Plant manager—responsible for defining budget for ergonomics improvements, approval and release of funding for improvements, understanding risk assessment and prioritization method.
Even in this simple example it is clear that, by defining the roles of each contributing member of the ergonomics process, there is less of a chance of frustration when it comes time to implement solutions. Ideally, each member of the team should have these expectations included in their individual scorecards/key performance indicators (KPI’s).
As mentioned earlier, these are very busy people, so the more efficiently and effectively they can receive the education necessary to perform their duties, the better. This is where the group realized that the two strategies were intertwined. They could use blended learning to provide effective education and explain that individual’s role and responsibilities.
So, although our world is quickly moving toward AI and machine learning as ways to create smarter workplaces, don’t lose sight of the fact that your people will always be your greatest resource, and the smarter they are, the greater your work environment will be. Plus, the machines will eventually break down and someone will need to learn to fix them. A blended learning approach would work there too!
Jeff Sanford, CPE, is director of consulting with VelocityEHS | Humantech (www.ehs.com), a provider of EHS software solutions.