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Behavior-Based Safety Applies to Ergonomics

by Tom Burns

Common Elements – Ergonomics and Behavioral Safety Processes

Traditional Ergonomics and Behavioral Safety processes typically have much in common. The elements common to both processes usually include the utilization of teams with members from all levels of the organization to drive the processes and the observation of workplace tasks by team members. From a broad perspective, the objective of each of these processes is to identify critical risk factors and to implement effective methods for eliminating or reducing the risks.

The benefits of a team-based approach are substantial regardless of whether the focus is on prevention of common injuries resulting from actions such as slips, trips, and falls or whether the focus is on musculoskeletal disorder cases such as tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and back injuries. Certainly, team-based approaches promote the high level of employee involvement needed to achieve commitment to the process. Such involvement at all levels of the organization also helps ensure that risks are effectively identified and that improvements considered for eliminating or reducing the risks are feasible and absent of unintended consequences.

In most organizations employees performing the physical tasks are the ones that dominant the organization’s OSHA 300 Log and Worker’s Compensation case listings. These are also the employees who are the experts in the performance of the tasks. It follows that the active involvement of these employees is critical to the success of any safety-related process.

Peer-to-Peer Coaching for Improving Ergonomics Processes

In simplistic terms, behavioral safety involves: (a) utilizing a team-based approach to identify the critical work habits and practices needed for injury-free work, (b) establishing a process for employees to observe each other perform tasks, (c) providing peer-to-peer coaching in the form of feedback and positive reinforcement to help each other develop the critical work habits and practices needed for safe work, and (d) working together to resolve root causes of conditions that encourage the performance of tasks in a less than fully safe manner. It should not be surprising that such a logic-based, people-helping-people process is very powerful in achieving and sustaining a safe workplace when the team has properly identified the critical risk factors and the training and support needed for the coaching process is provided.

Although, traditional ergonomics processes typically incorporate the concepts of teams and task observations, many ergonomics processes fail to provide the opportunity for peer-to-peer coaching and feedback. However, failure to include coaching and feedback can substantially restrict the potential for ergonomics processes to achieve and sustain their full potential.

Ergonomics Coaching and Feedback – Shaping the Right Habits

Many ergonomic risks are under the control of the performer and are thus impacted by the performer’s work habits and practices. Examples of such work practices often under the control of the performer are numerous and include: (a) bending knees when lifting, (b) keeping loads close to the body, (c) avoiding over-loading of material handling carts, (d) using the proper tool, (e) getting help to lift when needed, and (f) maintaining proper posture at computer work stations.

In the absence of a coaching process that shapes proper behaviors through positive reinforcement and feedback, organizations are left with a limited number of options when observations are made of employees taking ergonomic risks by not utilizing proper work habits and practices. Typically organizations that have not implemented coaching as a part of their ergonomics process, attempt to improve work habits primarily by prescribing additional training or safety talks in their effort to further educate the employees on the value of safe work habits.

The rush to training is often initiated based on ease of implementation rather than an analytical analysis of the need for training and a fair assessment of its projected impact. In reality, some Ergonomics teams tend to prescribe such training when employees are already properly educated on the correct work practices – i.e. most employees in organizations likely understand the benefits of bending their knees. Although refresher training on familiar topics has an important place in safety programs, it is unreasonable to expect that such refresher training would result in a break-through level of sustained improvement.

The more critical need is a change in the process that helps employees develop and sustain improved work habits. Such a change can be realized through implementation of peer-to-peer coaching. This coaching consists of co-workers making planned observations of tasks being performed and providing positive reinforcement and constructive feedback to help shape improved work habits.

Adding Coaching and Feedback to Your Ergonomics Process

Effective ergonomics processes benefit the organization in a number of ways. Significant impact can be made in the reduction in injury rates and worker’s compensation costs. Further, when changes are made that allow employees to work “smarter rather than harder” productivity and quality improve.

Many existing ergonomics processes can be made more effective by adding coaching and feedback to the process. Adding coaching and feedback to an ergonomics process would typically involve the following steps:

  • Training Ergonomics Team members
  • Identification of work habits and practices critical to minimizing ergonomic risk factors in the organization’s work place
  • Developing a schedule for conducting coaching and feedback
  • Developing a method for analyzing relevant information gathered as a part of the observation, coaching, and feedback process.

Such changes can help ensure ergonomics processes reach their full potential and that employers realize the full return on investment of resources dedicated to improving safety in the workplace.

Tom Burns is a Project Manager for Quality Safety Edge. His past experiences include successful implementations of ergonomics and behavioral safety processes, and in utilizing Performance Management techniques to help organizations achieve improvements in the areas of safety, quality, and productivity. Tom is a Certified Professional Ergonomist, Certified Safety Professional, and Licensed Professional Engineer. His recent work has focused on assisting the U.S. Postal Service in implementing effective ergonomic processes in major mail processing and distribution centers throughout the nation.