How to Manage Ergonomics Champions at the Grassroots Level

For ergonomics to become "the way we do things around here," individuals who are asked to spend time on ergonomic tasks must see them as personally relevant.

Grassroots ergonomics programs, in which employees contribute to safety program administration as a secondary job responsibility, are common in organizations that maintain a strong culture of safety. There are numerous benefits to this style of program, notably: 1) cost containment by staffing fewer safety personnel, which is especially appealing as more safety managers are being asked to achieve results with fewer resources; and 2) increasing safety ownership and engagement at all levels, to moving safety from a mindset of "required" to "the way we do things around here."

Without the right processes in place to manage grassroots ergonomics efforts, however, there is a greater risk of failure due to confusion, lack of motivation, or unmonitored tasks slipping through the cracks. In order to avoid the pitfalls associated with executing ergonomics at this level, a number of management best practices must be followed.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has employed a successful grassroots ergonomics program for both industrial and office employees since 2006. PG&E's program consists of "internal consultants," who are employees selected to be responsible for ergonomics within their department, in addition to their regular jobs. These employees are trained to implement all ergonomics efforts across their work groups. These efforts vary by department (allowing for the "grassroots" feel) but include responsibilities such as conducting in-person evaluations and job task analyses.

Since the program's implementation in 2006, the company's office ergonomic injury rates have decreased by 33 percent and industrial ergonomic injury rates have dropped by 79 percent. How did PG&E achieve these results? Below are the five keys to the success of its grassroots ergonomics program.

1. Train in Both Ergonomics and Leadership
It is critical to train internal consultants up front. At PG&E, industrial consultants complete a three-day training class focusing on job task analysis. For those working in the office, there is a two-day training focusing on workstation ergonomics and safe computing principles.

A strong internal consultant requires training not only in ergonomics fundamentals, but also in basic leadership skills. For example, let's say she needs to present a mid-year ergonomics report to her supervisors. If she lacks the ability to present clearly or compellingly, the supervisors might overlook the critical achievements gained from ergonomic programs and apply their attention, buy-in, and budget to other safety areas. At PG&E, leadership training includes running a goal-oriented meeting, using the computer to document work, delegating work to team members whom they don't directly supervise, and keeping team members engaged in the ergonomics process.

2. Define Ergonomics "Must's" and "Don't Have To's"
Initial training should clearly set expectations for what the role of the internal consultant entails, as well as a clear communication of the processes and resources in place for ergonomics. At PG&E, internal consultants are responsible for acting as ergonomics champions, maintaining familiarity with available resources, and advising supervisors and employees on their use. Industrial consultants are also responsible for using task analysis results and moving proposed changes into the organization.

The importance of clearly defining required processes is intuitive. However, an important step unique to the grassroots program is communicating the areas of flexibility to the internal consultants. In order to achieve the grassroots "feel" and associated cultural benefits, the consultants must be encouraged to create processes and communications personalized to the culture of their department.

At PG&E, every internal office consultant knows that they are required to 1) ensure all employees are trained and assessed (online) biannually, 2) conduct an in-person evaluation for any employee at a new workstation, and 3) escalate employees reporting discomfort to external consultants. One internal consultant in a department with a more proactive culture has taken the initiative to implement "ergo buddies," a system whereby employees are paired to monitor each other's ergonomics every other week and point out any problems with workstation setup or posture. This system helps keep ergonomics on the front burner for those employees while allowing ergonomics processes to reflect the interactive culture of the department.

Table 1. Sliding scale used to evaluate ergonomic grassroots team effectiveness

Level 0  No activity
Level 1 Team in formative stage
Level 2 Team has formed; low output, struggles with completing task analyses/evaluations and documenting work
Level 3 Team functioning at a moderate level; taking on task analyses/evaluations and other related projects in a timely fashion
Level 4 Team performs at a high level; good leadership, good line of business participation, clear sense of purpose; accomplishes task analyses/evaluations and documents work 

3. Set Clear Boundaries
Injuries resulting from poor ergonomics can be serious and costly -- so allowing internal consultants to take responsibility can feel risky. The way to avoid anxiety on this issue is to make sure they are given clear boundaries on when to defer to a more highly trained or credentialed experts.

As stated above, for office workers at PG&E, that boundary is if the employee reports prolonged discomfort -- PG&E tracks reports of discomfort through ergonomic assessment software, which can be an ideal and efficient reporting tool for this variable. On the industrial side, injured workers who have filed claims or return-to-work cases are referred to more highly trained physical/occupational therapists.

There also must be a clear process for referral once these at-risk employees have been identified. The internal consultant will need information for how to engage the more knowledgeable experts to schedule an evaluation, as well as understand what role they themselves will play in any follow-up activities, such as equipment ordering and installation, or follow-up evaluations.

4. Emphasize the Audience
For ergonomics to become "the way we do things around here," the individuals who are asked to spend time on ergonomic tasks have to perceive them as personally relevant -- they must avoid thinking they have to complete ergonomics training because their Safety Manager wants to remain compliant with training requirements. Therefore, the internal consultants must understand how to communicate about ergonomics in a way that resonates with each and every employee. For example, ergonomics assessment and training is mandatory for PG&E office employees every two years. However, in the interest of keeping injury rates low, the ergonomics team expects office consultants to encourage employees to complete assessments annually. In the years that ergonomics is not a required training, it is up to the consultants to convince their group's supervisors and employees that it is a valuable time investment.

While the safety manager's main interest is to reduce lost work time and recordables, employees care about ergonomics for two underlying reasons: 1) so that they remain comfortable at work, and 2) so that they can continue to enjoy their leisure time without the burden of pain or injury. By focusing communications on "To ensure that you are working as comfortably as possible…" rather than "Because Safety says so…," the internal consultant's requests for employees to utilize a new and safer way to lift a jackhammer, for example, are more likely to be successfully implemented.

5. Measure Success
It is always critical to monitor the successes and failures of an ergonomics program, to optimize the effectiveness of the program's efforts and to prove the value of the program to leadership. In the case of grassroots ergonomics, monitoring should take place on two levels: assessing the injury rates among employees over time (a lagging indicator) and evaluating the effectiveness of the preventive efforts (a leading indicator).

While the monitoring of injury rates should already be happening across your employee population, the idea of evaluating the effectiveness of preventative efforts is less obvious, but this evaluation is a necessary part of the program. It can consist of a combination of concrete measurements within each consultant's population but also should capture criteria such as the level of organization and timeliness of efforts within their department, which requires the implementation of some form of standardized documentation.

Business process management software, created specifically for health and safety processes, is an effective option for documenting and monitoring the progress made within each department, as well as an ideal system through which to optimize program processes. By utilizing such an application, which assists the internal consultants in monitoring ergonomics tasks, the ergonomics director can gain insight into where failures are happening and prioritize which processes or departments should receive resources for improvement.

PG&E has created a sliding scale of success in order to assess each department's efforts in a standardized fashion. This scale provides a basis for feedback on whether and how a certain internal consultant is falling short in his or her efforts and enables the ergonomics director to understand which consultants require the most assistance for improvement.

Grassroots teams can be a vital link to cultivating ownership of the safety process by employees. Providing effective training and boundaries are critical for these teams to succeed. Generally, employees know best what needs to be done to improve their own safety -- the grassroots approach taps into the energy and job knowledge of those who know their work best.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

Download Center

  • EHS Buyer's Guide

    Download this buyer's guide to make more informed decisions as you're looking for an EHS management software system for your organization.

  • Online Safety Training Buyer's Guide

    Use this handy buyer's guide to learn the basics of selecting online safety training and how to use it at your workplace.

  • COVID Return-to-Work Checklist, Fall 2021

    Use this checklist as an aid to help your organization return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic in a safe and healthy manner.

  • SDS Buyer's Guide

    Learn to make informed decisions while searching for SDS Management Software.

  • Risk Matrix Guide

    Risk matrices come in many different shapes and sizes. Understanding the components of a risk matrix will allow you and your organization to manage risk effectively.

  • Industry Safe

Featured Whitepapers

OH&S Digital Edition

  • OHS Magazine Digital Edition - September 2021

    September 2021


      Managing Combustible Dust and Risk Mitigation
      The Rising Popularity of Safety Helmets on the Jobsite
      Five Tips for a Successful Wear Trial
      Medical Surveillance Versus Medical Screening
    View This Issue