Your ergonomic program won’t work unless you follow the rules (part one)



Rule 1: Ask yourself this question first:

How do you put on your pants in the morning?  Do you put your right foot in first or your left?  Do you sit on your bed or stand in your laundry room?  Do you put your socks on before your pants or after?  These questions may seem a bit ridiculous, but what would you do if I told you that you had to change the way you put on your pants?  You would most likely ask me why.  This is the pivotal moment when I have the power to succeed or fail in my effort to promote change. 

I could tell you that my way is better for you.  How would that make you feel?  Would it make you do what I said or the exact opposite? 

Let’s change the situation slightly.  What if you were in pain because you have arthritis in your hip and I taught you a different way of putting on your pants that miraculously made it less painful? Would you quickly integrate what I told you and do it correctly every morning without any additional education?

While the above examples seem somewhat absurd, the first scenario is exactly what happens when consultants stride confidently into a plant or office and start proclaiming changes in procedures and processes.  An ergonomic program, even one that has been researched by supervisors and approved by managers, can be a foreign and bizarre concept to the employees.  The indicator of success of any program, whether ergonomic or wellness, is when the employees embrace the changes as their own.  That is the only way safe behavior will self-sustain.

Christian, Bradley, Wallace, and Burke (2009) found that safety performance behavior is directly influenced by what they call “proximal person-related factors” consisting of two components–safety motivation and safety knowledge.  These two components directly affect safety performance resulting in positive safety outcomes, i.e., decreased injuries and accidents. 

Rule 2: Answer WIIFM?

Motivation: What’s in it for me?

The first question that an employee often will pose to me whether verbally or by body language when I propose an idea for change is: “what’s in it for me?”  Any program that I propose has to answer that question repeatedly and in varying forms.  The mistake many program designers encounter is answering that question with a very concrete statement–“so you don’t get hurt.”   That may be the obvious answer, but if the employee has never been hurt, that answer doesn’t resonate.  Or, what if the employee has the chance of making the same salary while sitting at home on workers compensation and other workers in the plant are telling him how great it is to be off work and get paid– is “so you won’t get hurt” really the best answer?

It is particularly problematic for the ergonomics or safety instructor who is interested in implementing a model of prevention rather than intervention.  Every adult may not have a specific memory of what it is like to be injured; therefore, linking the program with “not getting hurt” may not provide everyone with a strong motivation to retain that information.  The hardest class I ever taught was to a group of males in their twenties who were computer programmers.  They had no concept of work-related pain.  To them comfort and looking “cool” were more important than preventing back injuries.  Back pain was only for old people.  My challenge was to find a way to present safety as a way to be more “cool” or more comfortable.

People’s perceived feeling of how well they can affect change, or self-efficacy, as well as their perceived value of the change also regulates motivation for change.  According to Arthur Bandura (1998), a forefather of the concept of social cognitive theory, “self-efficacy is defined as people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives.  Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave” (p. 421).  If someone doesn’t feel like they can affect change, they won’t attempt or put in effort to change. 

Rule 3: Mob rules must be followed

Groups also experience a sense of self-efficacy.  This can be used to aid to aid the safety program or could further hinder it.  Self-efficacy is “a social construct.  Collective systems develop a sense of collective efficacy – a group’s shared belief in its capability to attain goals and accomplish desired tasks” (Panjares, 2002, p. 5).  Creating a sense of teamwork and a sense of team accomplishments can help motivate groups to change.

However, people may feel that they can affect change well and still not put in effort for change if they perceive that engaging in a certain behavior will have another undesired effect (Panjares, 2002).  Consider again the new way of putting on pants.  An individual may feel that he can easily change the way he puts on his pants; however, it will slow him down in the morning.  He may have a future risk, but the present situation tells him he will lose valuable time.   He may complain justifiably that a new procedure takes more time than the old unsafe way. 

One of the first authors to write about affective methods of working with people was Dale Carnegie.  He stated that the only way to get people to do something you want them to do is make the other person want to do it (1936).  Carnegie has written a whole book’s worth of how to, but to summarize: be nice to people and don’t criticize; give sincere appreciation; allow them to feel important; and inspire an “eager want” by focusing on what they want. 

Putting all that together might appear to take much more work than putting up signs and holding lectures.  However, recent studies have shown that when supervisors increase their “positive interactions” with staff, for example, being nice and giving appreciation, by only 50%, the staff shows a decrease in unsafe behavior by 16% (Luria, Zohar, and Erev, 2008).  That means that a supervisor would need to say “Hello Mr. Jones, great to see you wearing your hard hat today” or “you are doing a great job” or even “how are your kids doing today Ms. Smith” a few more times than they already do (or start doing it) in order to decrease the risk of injury by 16%!  A lot easier than yelling at an employee for not tying his shoes or not lifting with bent knees.  So…

Rule 4: Supervisors have to be on board or the ship will sink

It means that supervisors have to be present for all training and participate in all change actively.  Supervisors and managers can’t praise or endorse what they don’t understand.  “In effect, the importance that leaders place on safety likely undergirds the climate for safety and has a critical influence on discretionary behaviors” (Christian, et. al., 2009, p. 1121).  Having the heads of the organization all the way up to the CEO openly stating acceptance of and participating in changes will increase the group’s belief that change can happen and when it does, that it will be positive change.  If employees can perceive this commitment to a safety program, they “tend to be positive in their attitudes toward safety, they will be less inclined to commit unsafe acts, and more likely to make suggestions and comments on improving work conditions” (Fernández-Muñiz, Montes-Peón, & Vázquez-Ordás, 2007, p. 636).

Want the rest? Check back soon…

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