Elevating Ergonomic Leadership

Start by reframing Ergonomics to include behavior change.

WHAT can you do when you've "tried everything" technically, yet still have stubborn problems? Try a strategic leadership approach.

For example, many companies have driven the engineering route towards reduced ergonomic-related -- usually soft-tissue -- injuries, reducing risk by redesign and tooling. Most organizations have seen positive results; but most have also settled into the point of diminishing returns, still suffering too many Ergo injuries.

Rather than resting on their laurels, strongest leaders always believe they can do better, that problems have solutions. They also courageously uncover their own biases and assumptions so these don't limit breakthrough solutions.

Literally "the science of work," Ergonomics, in my definition, is "improving the fit between people and their tasks." This can be accomplished through improved design, changed worker behavior, or, ideally, both simultaneously. We've worked worldwide with organizations that had reached a plateau of Ergo injuries. Here is what's helped boost them over the cusp: a seven-step plan for Ergonomic Leadership.

1. Set & assess Ergo objectives. Delineate specifically what you want to achieve. Go beyond the obvious. If you don't delineate where you want to go, it's difficult to get there. You might ask yourself, "If this intervention is successful, what will people--from senior managers to workers--be thinking and doing differently?"

For example, you might want managers to see Ergo as a key to overall worker alignment. Or to perceive personal returns for themselves (especially with older managers). To expect and set realistic timelines for return on Ergo intervention investments (hint: about 3-6 months for trailing indicators on strains and sprains, but much shorter for heightened workers' receptivity and behavior change). To allocate resources or model personal Ergo actions themselves.

Worker objectives might include seeing the "unseen"--to better self-monitor small and static forces that can cumulatively wear them down. To try on new skills that can make large improvements both quickly and over the longer term. To export what they learn to a wide range of tasks, both at work and home. And more.

2. Identify the barriers to Ergo receptivity and behavior change. Assess what's previously gotten in the way of higher support from managers (Not thinking there are any problems? Suspicion that soft tissue injuries are faked? Fear of opening a can of worms?) and safer Ergo behaviors among workers (Thinking of Ergo as management's responsibility? Seeing this as an excuse to reduce the workforce or get them to work even harder? Believing "you can't teach an old dog new tricks?").

3. Build an organizational base. I've seen many professionals with a lone ranger approach become frustrated from lack of support. Start by reframing Ergonomics to include behavior change. Go beyond a "prevent losses" mindset to incorporate enhanced engagement, receptivity, health, and morale. Activate leadership both above and horizontally to think cumulatively, talk Ergo benefits to everyone, help set Ergo leading indicators, plan for strategic piloting.

4. Spark involvement, peer support. Simultaneously work bottom-upwards by training select workers to become peer Ergo change catalysts. Remove obstacles to ensure their success as instructors first, coaches second, and system reinforcement agents third. Encourage everyone to have personal Ergo objectives; regularly check in with their progress and challenges.

5. Introduce worker behaviors. Experience shows there are mental and physical skillsets critical for effective Ergo behavior. "Mental" includes seeing level of actual accepted risk, being honestly receptive to personal improvement and learning, thinking cumulatively at work and home, directing attention, and self-monitoring.

Physical skills include best alignment to redirect forces from concentrating in vulnerable body areas, positioning to maximize leverage and strength, enhancing balance, eye-hand coordination for flexibility, and breath control.

Elevate their expectations: Offer personal benefits, aim for "Aha!" moments, and harness the power of kinesthetics (so they feel real improvements and are not just expected to extend blind faith).

6. Develop habits--at work & at home. Set new behaviors by emphasizing home Ergo. Educate all to make better purchasing decisions that enhance comfort and effectiveness, develop Home Ergo Leaders, and focus from external to internal control of Ergonomics, everywhere.

7. Support and reinforce Ergo behavior transfer. Develop a surround system where all speak the same Ergo language. Fit Ergo into all corporate and Safety initiatives. Develop a range of site and group reinforcers. Encourage leaders to revisit leading indicators and model Ergo behaviors. Communicate Ergo successes, worker-based modifications, and Heroes. Plan for next Ergo steps.

High-level leadership entails tackling and overcoming nagging obstacles in new ways. By thinking and acting strategically, you can harness Ergo leadership to help everyone work and live safer, more effectively, and more in control.

This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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