Advancing Ergonomic Culture

A hallmark of the Self-propelled culture is understanding the balance among productivity, quality, and safety.

When it comes to reducing ergonomic injuries -- soft-tissue injuries and others that are extremely prevalent and costly for many companies -- developing the right culture is especially important. Ergonomic problems are typically cumulative in nature. One-shot interventions or would-be quick fixes usually fall flat when applied to Ergo injuries that reflect daily choices and actions, wearing down and debilitating workers over time.

But a strong Ergonomic culture can also build, pearl-like, toward individual control for safety and heightened worker and company performance.

I’ve seen five types of Ergonomic Cultures. Some companies have matured ergonomically through these over time:

1. Timeclocking: oldest-style ergonomics where efficiency rules. Designed by “outside experts,” this top-down approach is frontend- loaded, overly focused on minimizing input as fast as possible. As my colleague Ron Bowles notes, “A significant factor in these workplaces is they look at employees as ‘components’ that can do the tasks where it is too difficult/expensive to design equipment to do the task, and then be replaced when they break down.”

One objective here is to automate tasks wherever possible and get complex machinery to forestall mission error. Generally, employees wear out or become disgruntled (they see Ergonomics’ goal as getting them to “do the work of three people”). Turnover is high, morale low, and cumulative trauma abounds.

2. Engineering: applies statistical databases (Anthropometry) to heighten job performance. Defines ergonomics as “designing tools and workstations to fit workers.” Talks about “idiot-proofing” the workplace. Tends to be industrial/manufacturing oriented; completing tasks is given highest priority, diminishing deleterious effects on people is important but secondary (in action, not necessarily in words). This culture shows more interest in reducing wear-down injuries from overexertion, vibration, or other forces than Timeclocking culture. “Experts” see their roles as knowledgeable scientists who are most able to make work environment changes. Interestingly, in some of these cultures, the approach to Ergonomics is “a few sizes fit all” (e.g., purchase of three sizes of gloves that fit most, but not all, workers).

3. Policing: an outgrowth of the Engineering Ergonomic culture above, where highly specific policies and procedures are set on the “proper” and expected ways to adjust work chairs, use gloves, employ tools, lift product. The assumption is above-designed Engineering approaches are best and correct, and now enforcement is simply needed to bring workers into ergonomic policy alignment. Some workers comply, some grumble, many give lip service. But “solutions” are still general and don’t always fit each individual employee. And there’s no carryover to addressing at-home sources of cumulative trauma that can still transfer to workers. Ergonomics is seen as a hammer against workers. Unsurprisingly, pushback results.

4. Cheerleading: here, the focus shifts to positively motivating and reminding workers to “pay attention,” “use good judgment,” “select the best tools,” “adjust your workstations.” Communications tend to be semi-specific at best, and training is minimal. (Typically, it is more information-based, delivered via Internet, computer, or videos.) Sometimes “Ergonomic behavior” is incorporated into an external monitoring system (checklist audits and report-backs).

Often, “Cheerleading” Ergonomics emerges after Engineering and Policing create negative employee reactions or statistical results disappoint or plateau. The strength of this approach is an initial emphasis on cumulative thinking and of elevating workers’ ability to start to take control of their worklives. Its main weakness is that expected behavioral changes are not grounded in needed skills. Motivation and positive attention are important but not enough to overcome a full range of ergonomic challenges. Ironically, this culture has become increasingly prevalent in companies with autonomous workforces or where work environments are not easily changed. (“Ironic” with outside workers because external approval often supplants internal motivation to make critical adjustments when no one is watching.)

5. Self-propelled: recognizes Ergonomic injuries are inherently personal in nature and contributed to by ongoing perceptions, decisions, and methods, and that Ergo-related soft tissue and other injuries can be directly affected by off-work activities. So, sometimes out of frustration with having abortively tried other approaches, this culture focuses on self-directed Ergonomics from the inside-out, with each worker becoming his or her own “Ergonomic Expert.”

A hallmark of this culture is understanding the balance among productivity, quality, and safety. Self-propelled culture begins to think cumulatively and forward, rather than making reactive shorter- term, “how-much-money-can-we-save-this-week” decisions.

Emphasis is on assisting all organizational members to take personal control of their own Ergonomic behaviors. Focus is on training workers in mental and physical Ergonomic principles and skillsets, then helping people apply these to their specific jobs and their chosen tasks at home (making good purchasing decisions, adjusting existing furniture and equipment for best results, maximizing leverage and coordination while minimizing tension buildup).

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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