If you’re using a standardized ergonomic assessment form (or a set) to gauge the progress or success of your ergonomic initiative, you may not be realizing the total benefits available to you and your employees. You may also not be capturing or addressing the full scope of the issues before you.
This is especially true if you are tasked with achieving X results in a timeframe of Y. Your forms-based approach may or may not deliver results that will produce the metrics that the executive team wants to see. So, what to do?
Here are some of the limitations of forms-based assessments and how you can go beyond those limitations to create a whole new world of change.
1. The floor and ceiling effect. The REBA assessment form, for example, has a limited range within which to measure capacity and incapacity. I do not wish to step on toes, but, how can a previous injury impacting mobility be addressed within this form? Your movement floor and ceiling and my movement floor and ceiling are likely completely different. How can the individual’s unique range of motion be captured? And if the use of the REBA form, or similar forms, is mandated in order to fit into a larger hierarchy of performance, how can you track what’s really going on with a particular employee? Here’s a suggestion: add a detailed addendum to the form that identifies the individual’s particular physicality and its abilities and limitations and create a set of metrics around that. Bringing these metrics to the attention of the executive team and how tracking them has benefited both employees and the company may allow the introduction of a whole new set of metrics to be tracked across divisions/work groups.
2. Only addressing the design of the station. Welding will always be welding, but you can suggest and allow changes that will help address worker fatigue and stiffness. For example, you can build in stretch or rest breaks. Even just 45 to 60 seconds can reset the most used muscle groups.
3. Ignoring future effects. Each change you make will deliver short term, midrange, and long term effects. Are you tracking the effects of your ergonomic changes over time? Some of the changes you put in place may deliver excellent short term results, but might those changes produce poor results in the longer haul? For example, changing a reach at a workstation can create immediate relief for an employee as he or she begins to exercise a different set of muscles. But will the new reach movement deliver a different set of problems over time, or the same muscle fatigue problem you started out with? Thinking through the longer term effects of your ergonomic changes may reveal that additional considerations have to be made.
4. Not training or monitoring your ergo team effectively. If you don’t have an ergo team in place, then that’s step #1. If you do, the way you train that team and measure their results will have an enormous impact on outcomes. Proper training and continued training through developing a critical eye, will allow your team to implement corrections that produce positive results versus negative ones. For example, encouraging workers to stretch throughout the work is great. The caveat to this is whether or not the employee truly understands the hows and whys of stretching. This form of education must be nurtured layer by layer. Don’t assume proper movement patterns in stretching or exercising in anyone.
5. Not defining the role of the ergo team deeply enough. Does the ergo team view themselves as compliance police or teachers? Do they think their job is to enforce or to encourage? Studies clearly show that leaders who show up as teachers and encouragers will develop deeper relationships with their employees and produce better results than those who only try to achieve metrics. When a leader, or change agents, takes the approach of empowering and valuing employees, employees will show up engaged and eager to participate, even becoming teachers and encouragers themselves. The more distributed the selfcare message is—that is, the more often it comes from peers versus the leadership team—the more powerful it will be. Don’t feel like you have the right people in place to provide that training in a powerful way? We have trained many teams in this approach, and they’ve been extraordinarily successful in creating positive results for their employers and employees alike.
6. Not considering yourself a change agent. Many leaders fear that implementing a program focused on helping workers mitigate fatigue, body stiffness, or discomfort will soon have all workers complaining about having pain, and then what? Surely, they’ll demand more pay? Or, worse yet, we could experience higher worker’s compensation claims. We’ve found that concern to be baseless. In fact, our experience is that these programs help employees feel cared for and valued. Emotions expressed as “valued”, “cared for”, “appreciated” are powerful non-monetary benefits all companies can aspire to create in the company culture. This can spur employees to step up and participate in leadership roles, training fellow employees and providing helpful tips when they see the opportunity. Therefore, companies observe decreased worker compensation claims, increased productivity, increased quality, decreased number of days away from work.
7. Using the wrong words to communicate with employees on how they physically feel. Let’s take the word “discomfort”, a popular term in early intervention programs, and a term that OSHA approves, rather than the word “pain.” “Pain” equals an injury in OSHA terminology. Unfortunately, we find that employees often consider “pain” and “discomfort” as synonyms. The goal of Early Symptom Intervention programs is to get to the employee before pain. There are red flags that employees express either consciously or unconsciously well before a description of “discomfort” or “pain” is verbalized. It is here where you can begin to assist employees to make corrections to help and then monitor those corrections. This is an area in which ergo teams can fall short; not because they don’t care, but because the knowledge base is not there. And chances are this technical level of knowledge and application won’t be learned in ergo teams comprised of most current company employees: EHS, assembly team leads, production supervisors, HR personnel. The information necessary is in an entirely different career knowledge base. Hiring outside companies that have this experience to assist in molding, teaching, and mentoring internal ergo teams is highly valued by companies that are now traveling down this path, due to the significant results achieved by doing so.
Avoid these seven deadly sins in ergonomic risk assessment, and you’ll find yourself curing ills you may never have known you had.