Occupational Health & Safety

It's All About Attitude

Doing this right requires much more than simply a good chair.

On some level, every safety professional has had to confront (and, one hopes, embrace) workplace ergonomics. Sometimes it is by chance.... A call from a purchasing officer, say, who is trying to decide which item to order. Or a department is reviewing new hand tools with ergonomic applications. An ADA accommodation is proposed by Human Resources to make an employee more comfortable, or you're assisting a returning, injured employee who has new and permanent limitations in his abilities.

Workplace ergonomics is much more than a good chair, To set up a successful program, do the groundwork and you will be rewarded by knowledgeable management, agreeable purchasing (and other bean counters), and employees who feel that safety and your efforts for ergonomic assistance are worthwhile. Every department in your company can benefit, from the heavy manufacturing to the office drones. Ergonomic promotion is not an easy or fast task, but it's worth every effort. This is a case where you decide the program reception by your attitude, so consider the following areas:

  • As program manager, educate yourself. Learn what ergonomics really means in your work environment and list potential problem areas and concerns. Target the "worst" items first. Always remember to speak a language every employee can understand. Be willing and able to explain in detail what ergonomic accommodations are and what they mean to each employee. Stress to managers the positive aspects of ergonomics and your efforts to keep the workforce healthier and at work and productive. Share your interest in the program. The bottom line: Ergonomics is good for the workplace!
  • Check the injury background. Review the injury history for several years past and carefully examine potential ergonomic issues. Talk in detail with your worker's compensation administrator or insurance carrier, who can provide much useful information on where to start your efforts. Consider costs and what you can save long term, too, so that you can share these with management to enhance their acceptance of the program.
  • Nurture management's awareness of the program. Forget the "one and done" because your efforts will be continuous until all levels of management fully understand and accept ergonomic assistance and changes that it brings. Stress the positive aspects of the program, emphasizing your points with clear, easy-to-read handouts for your managers. Ensure that they understand new ergonomic tools cost but pay big dividends in the long run, with less stress on employees. Stress that ergonomic changes take time and a lot of communication. Managers hate surprises; knowing up front what is involved in the program will help you ensure success now and next year and thereafter.
  • Set your goals up front and be reasonable. Nothing fails faster or easier than overshooting your goals with a new program that starts out with enthusiasm and soon lies, covered with dust, in some back file cabinet. Make your list of things you want to accomplish with ergonomics in your workplace, then whittle the list into a manageable task. Consider how much time you really have to devote to the program, budget, outside technical consultants or training gurus, educational items (DVDs, videos, online training), and other items.
  • Be realistic about policy and procedures. Draft something you can deliver with your available manpower and budget. Often it is best to start with a brief policy statement and then add as the program grows, instead of having an elaborate policy/procedure that cannot be accomplished.
  • Establish guidelines and a basic budget process. Discuss options/limitations with Purchasing, Speak in terms they understand, which is dollars! Have specific item numbers; it helps often to request samples from vendors for review. Make your ergonomic goals personal for them and emphasize that continued communication is key to the program's success. Watch for sudden “changes” in items ordered, as many purchasing departments will opt for a cheaper item, not understanding that differences in performance do exist. Reminding them of the worker's comp costs helps to make your case.
  • Remember to include your safety committee throughout. These people are available and often willing to help with policy, product selection, and other aspects of the program. Include them, but don't dictate to them.
  • Set parameters for the first year of the program and thereafter. Make a list and share it. Keep the intentions of the program and your successes visible.
  • Educate your employees. Start slowly, keeping the messages positive. Remember that employees are often skeptical or downright hostile toward change. Let them have a say through feedback on what is working and what is challenging to the work environment with regards to your approaches. Don't forget to change your delivery method and vary how you provide information. Offer training and education in appropriate formats for your workforce: visuals, samples of new tools, tailgate meetings, online web offerings, etc. You know your employees best, so approach them comfortably to ensure their acceptance of the program.
  • Set up a consistent evaluation tool. Know up front what you can purchase and what your options are to solve various problems. Approach each problem with the goal of a workable solution within reasonable costs.
  • Set up a consistent assessment recommendation tool for purchasing. Work with Purchasing on item selections and in devising your purchasing goals, both short term and long term.

When Your Time is Limited
Know and accept your limitations. If this is an "add on" program, be honest about your limited time and possibly the limited enthusiasm of employees for more responsibility. You can concentrate on efforts that require little time, such as adding items into workplace newsletters. Starting slow allows adjustments for needed program time requirements.

This is an era of "do more with less," so you have to pace the program offerings to ensure a continuous offering of services and education items is available. It is a juggling act with an additional item tossed in!

Provide an avenue for feedback and brace yourself for both good and bad. Relish the positive feedback and carefully consider the negative for potential improvements or changes you can make. Every negative comment is not valid; only you know the tipping points in your workplace.

Educate yourself and your ergonomic staff, decide who will do what and when. Look carefully at items that already are available, such as pre-written training items, visual aids such as posters, and checklists. Divide up the duties when possible, focusing on each staff member’s skill set. Make a realistic plan of action, with accountability and responsibility to help keep all aspects of the program on track.

Ergonomic Program Success Checklist
Your workplace ergonomic program success hinges on the interest and planning of your safety leadership! Consider the following items to ensure you have planned for long-term progress.

Yes/No Do you as the safety professional understand and endorse the benefits of workplace ergonomic applications and procedures? Do you understand the time and attitude that will be required of you as leadership? (It's often overlooked with new programs.)
Yes/Noa As part of your facility hazard analysis, have you identified potential areas that will benefit by ergonomic assistance, including tool selection, policy, procedures, purchasing, and new installations?
Yes/No Have you developed a list of all operations/departments and identified areas for added assistance in the areas of seating, physical energy, manual handling, workstations, postures, walking surfaces, stored energy, hand tool usage, and unnatural body movements? (This is critical to knowing where to begin.)
Yes/No Have you outlined the need for ergonomic program elements to upper management and identified the targeted benefits to the company and employees? Be ready to provide examples.
Yes/No Have you pulled together all parts of ergonomics currently in place in order to consolidate the efforts and prevent redundancy?
Yes/No Did you establish the needed time and resources that are available for the new program emphasis? Be specific and lengthen the range of program reach by several years.
Yes/No In discussions with purchasing, have you targeted a budget?
Yes/No Did you discuss with all teams, HR, Purchasing, upper management, Safety Committee, union reps, worker's comp, and line supervisors, when possible, the need for and benefits of an ergonomic program?
Yes/No Do you plan to “stage in” the program to make a long-lasting impact on employees and upper management?
Yes/No Do you plan to promote the achievements and success of the program? (Include employee awareness, reduced worker's comp costs, better morale, etc.)

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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