May 2017: Training, A Tool But Not Your Objective
- When you review corporate annual reports for hundreds of companies over decades, you will find that in the mid-1990’s ergonomic injuries were at about 48% of overall injuries across employers.
Since that time, proactive employers have made progress reducing ergonomic injuries. In general, however, that downward trajectory bottomed-out around 2009-2010 at around 33% and had started edging upward steadily continuing through today.
There are clear specific reasons for this:
Reason #1. Today’s Riskscape Is Not Yesterday’s Riskscape
One of the two major problems today is that “today is not yesterday“. When most of the science of office ergonomics was first teased out of the data and put into practice in the 1990’s:
- Your employees’ exposures were mostly “at the workplace”.
- They had smaller waists.
- They ate healthier.
- They were a younger workforce.
- They were also more active in their lifestyles.
Today, we now know much more than we did in the 1990’s:
- Outside of work, people nowadays live on technology more than ever for their personal finances, entertainment, communication, etc…
- We have to understand the work impact of hours of Facebook, Twitter and playing games.
- We also now know employees in discomfort are much more active consumers of healthcare.
- We now know that employees taking Statins to lower their cholesterol are more likely to suffer musculoskeletal conditions, joint diseases and injuries.
- We now know prolonged sitting leads to serious and very real health problems.
Reason #2. Cumulative Training Disorders; The CTD Before The CTD
When we objectively step back from the entire process, it all makes complete sense. Each employee has, in effect, been in a type of training for many years before you came along. The problem is that this previous cumulative training which we’re referring to has been a self-initiated and uninformed yet earnest effort of the employee to develop general computer use skills typically for speed and endurance to satisfy their supervisors.
Now, after those deeply engrained poor behaviors have been forged over years, along comes you and a new notion that there are inherent risks involved with improper use of the computer and workstation. An office ergonomics training course is presented with enthusiastic endorsement by management and a new way of thinking is presented – but can we undo years of bad habits with a training course, some follow-up emails and some encouraging words?
Where Is Your Office Ergonomics Program?
For over a decade, it’s been well-understood how ergonomic risk for computer users is directly correlated to employee behaviors. In fact, building on the science, more than 30 countries now have regulations and laws covering computer users specifically citing pacing and posture behaviors. These are valuable dots to connect.
We’ve recently tallied our numbers from over the years and it turns out that for about 99% of our clients, Behavioral Ergonomics was not their first choice. The other 1% were significant sized companies who were just starting to focus on the problem, no longer willing to just absorb the costs which had grown to be unacceptable when finally measured.
- Some clients just hadn’t made it a priority to allocate bandwidth for evaluating Behavioral Ergonomics and simply reconciled computer-user injury and discomfort costs as another cost of business. For companies today, however, the costs are already too hard to ignore when measured. If it’s not known yet, be sure that someone will start looking soon.
It’s ironic how, being late to the table and program-legacy-free, they were fortunate to have avoided the very expensive multi-year education our other clients had already been through on their journey to Behavioral Ergonomics for computer-users.
So exactly what did proactive employers do to lower their numbers down to the point where ergonomic injuries were 33% of total injuries? In most cases, they did some research and earnestly looked around at what others were doing as a start. They embarked on an effort to help employees change their behaviors while working on computers – but they didn’t call it this per se.
What are these behaviors which we absolutely know that we want? We do absolutely want computer-using employees to:
- work in neutral postures as often as possible
- take frequent brief breaks to provide recovery time while working
- move about periodically not being sedentary for many hours on end
- vary the focus of their eyes periodically
- not sit or stand in ways which introduce contact stress
- better organize their workspace to reduce inefficient actions
As such, best practices have evolved including some solid elements such as purchasing adjustable furniture, assessing and adjusting workstations, providing knowledge training – all in an effort to encourage employees to forge the new behaviors listed above.
In almost all cases, as assured by an optimistic and opportunistic vendor, the effort culminates with eLearning knowledge training and some follow-up emails from an automated system. What’s worse, is that when the results are lacking after a year or two of new investment, the vendor’s battle cry is either “more training!” or “you really need our in-person group training!“. Now the cycle starts again and on the surface it feels insidiously good because it’s clear and measurable in that you know who did and didn’t take the course, but what behaviors were changed? We might as well throw a course at smokers and expect them to change their behaviors.
Is training your goal? Is workstation adjustment your goal?
- No, these are not goals but are actually tactical objectives which help you reach your desired goal. This difference is vital to identify in order to properly frame what’s needed (coaching) in Office Ergonomics to complete the holistic solution puzzle ending up with automatic good ergonomic behaviors.
- A goal is a broad primary outcome:
“ABC Company’s goal is to reduce ergonomic injuries to well below 33% of overall injuries.”
- A strategy is the approach taken to achieve a goal:
“ABC Company’s strategy is to further reduce risk factors within our facilities for computer-using employees.”
- An objective is a measureable step taken to achieve a strategy:
“ABC Company’s objectives include empowering employees so they can learn the basics, improve their workstation, forge automatic good ergonomics behaviors, participate in the solution and share responsibility for comfortable, safe and productive time on the computer.”
- A tactic is a plan or tool used in pursuing an objective associated with a strategy:
“Some of ABC Company’s tactics used to achieve our objectives include providing adjustable furniture and equipment, using online knowledge training and leveraging point-of-use behavioral training technology software.”
- Coaching is a training or development process via which an individual is continually supported while achieving a specific behavioral personal or professional competence result or goal:
“ABC Company already utilizes behavioral coaches for leadership training, wellness coaching, career coaching, and now ergonomics coaching through empowering employees with ErgoSuite.”
Behavioral Training Begins With Knowledge Transfer – But Doesn’t End There
Sure, knowledge training and workstation adjustment are important to include in your program recipe, however, they are simply components of the overall program and not “Behavioral Training”, no more than a flathead screwdriver is a chisel. They can appear similar on the surface, however, they are different tools with different purposes.
If you’re in EH&S working on Office Ergonomics like our clients, your top goal is “to reduce ergonomics costs including, of course, injuries”. With your professional training and knowledge, you employ some important tactics to best position the employee for success:
Training is an important “tactic” that, when performed, brings us closer to our objectives as we educate employees about the risks, their role and ways to reduce risks.
Experts, however, agree that immediately after training, less than 50% of the knowledge and skills presented in training will be effectively transferred to the employee’s work even after doing well on the final test. Later, around 6 months after training, up to 75% of the training will be lost without continual positive reinforcement. By the anniversary of the training, employees will retain perhaps 10% to 15% of the knowledge presented in the training without continual positive reinforcement.
Workstation adjustment is also a very important “tactic” that, when met, brings us closer to our objectives since we know that the “chances” that an employee will use neutral postures increases when we set up their workstation to encourage neutral posture behaviors.
There are some tremendous benefits to be realized from adjusting someone’s workstation but what happens to those adjustments a week after you were there? How about after a month? Six months? Moreover, it is an enormous leap of faith and assumption that the employee will work in the adjusted workstation with their body in the desired positioning for any period of time, if at all. That desired outcome is a function of changing deep-rooted established behaviors.
Providing great basic office ergonomics training and even an anthropometrically perfect goniometer-adjusted workstation provides great benefits but only a marginal possibility that the employee develops new long-term good ergonomic behaviors especially when replacing years of poor ergonomic behaviors they’ve developed on their own.
The heartfelt hope of such a thing contradicts 100 years of Applied Behavioral Analysis and Behavior Theory.
Understanding this is a vital last step towards your fully solving the problem and attaining your goal.
Technology “You” Already Use Every Day
For any person’s behavior to change, there must be continual stimulus (Operant Conditioning) to first unlearn prior long-lived behavior and then make new behaviors automatic.
The perfect analog to using tools in this way can be found in automobile seat belt reminders. Many years ago, people were trained in Driver’s Education classes that it’s a vital best practice to wear their seat belts.
After some time, it became law throughout the land, however, it was still tragically discovered that providing training was not enough to effect a behavior change in drivers. This is an example of a Cumulative Training Disorder – which is curable. Even adjusting the positioning of the seat belt system (which increased the likelihood of proper use like adjusting a workstation to encourage neutral postures) was not enough.
- Eventually, drivers were provided simple point-of-use tools to reinforce and foster the proper behaviors which came in the form of a very simple active reminder system. It was simple, effective and did in fact change the behavior of most of the population.
Carefully integrated computer-based tools, also known as desktop tools, ensure timely and relevant positive reinforcement for employees at the point of need at precisely the time of need, as their situation changes throughout their time working.
Attempts to emulate this, perhaps with email reminders, are ineffective and fail in the long-term because they arrive unaware of the employee’s real-time situation upon receipt – which negates hopeful effectiveness and undercuts relevance, credibility and impact.
Returning to our seat belt analog, with a web-based approach you would mail letters (or send emails) to people reminding them to wear their seat belts – which of course could not make good behaviors automatic.
When you get into your automobile, do you automatically reach for the seatbelt without thinking about it? Of course you do, most of the time… When Relapse Theory materializes and you’re focused on something else while getting into your car, does your seat belt reminder system help you get back with the program? Of course it does.
As an employer and most importantly as an effective problem-solver, do you want computer-using employees to have to think about neutral postures and pacing all through their day – or do you want it to be automatic?
Our last thought on this relates to personal relevance simply to reinforce the main theme here. Your daughter, son, wife or husband has a new car. You’ve told them about seat belts and it was taught to them in Driver’s Education training. Is that enough? Do you want them to have an active point-of-use reminder system to reinforce and develop the good behavior or does it not matter? The answer is obvious when you’ve studied, understood and identified the problem.
Immediacy of Threat
Now you might consider that “you” would wear your seatbelt even without an automatic reminder system. Please bear in mind two things:
- First, you’re a highly skilled trained professional whose primary job, at least in part, is to know this subject matter and it’s ramifications at a deep level, and
- Next, each employee’s primary job and training have nothing to do with ergonomics and they have primary stressors they’re dealing with such as workload, deadlines, performance issues and that’s just the work-related short list…
The rub here is that in Office Ergonomics the potential negative outcome facing well-meaning employees is something which occurs over time in a cumulative manner. There is no immediacy of threat (a strong motivator in Applied Behavioral Analysis) such as what clearly exists when training someone how to safely use a high speed metal band saw or other equipment in an industrial setting.
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