Safety Training Beyond 2022: Ergonomics, Preventing MSDs & Avoiding Common Mistakes
By: Kevin Lombardo, Contributor
Ask any experienced workplace safety professional and they’ll tell you: Training is one of the most reliable, consistent and cost-effective ways to reduce injury risks. In virtually every industry, including high-risk sectors like construction and healthcare, employee safety training can be the difference between a healthy bottom line and a budget that dips into the red.
But not all safety training is created equal—though widely acknowledged to be essential, training without specific hazard targeting and thorough engagement with employees can lead to wasted money and poor morale within a workforce. In order to maximize the effectiveness of training and minimize the costs associated with injury risks, EHS professionals must concentrate their efforts in several key areas: ergonomics, biomechanics and communication.
Defining Ergonomics: Fitting the Task to the Worker
OSHA defines the science of ergonomics as simply fitting a job to a specific person. More specifically, ergonomics is the practice of applying engineering and scientific principles when designing a work environment, in order to accommodate the employee in relation to their workplace, the product, their equipment and tools, and the organization of their work. Tasks should always be fitted to the specific worker—workers should never be forced to adapt to a work environment that does not match their physical capabilities and characteristics.
The leading ergonomic risk factors include lifting heavy items, bending or twisting the body, reaching overhead or repetition—all hazards that can be targeted and mitigated through effective employee training. Less obvious, but no less significant, hazards also include inadequate rest and mechanical pressures on soft tissues.
Eliminating or decreasing the impact of hazards like these will diminish the risk of serious injuries, including musculoskeletal disorders, which are account for some 30% of all workers’ compensation costs to employers (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Moreover, at least one third of all workers’ compensation costs can be attributed to inadequate ergonomic safety standards.
The costs are not limited to employer dollars alone. “Ergonomics training for employees is about communicating the fact that safety affects everybody,” said Kate DeMoss, DORN’s Senior Certified Ergonomist. “If you get injured on the job, it affects your family, it affects coworkers—someone has to replace you on the job, and their role has to be filled, too. You may not be able to go home and coach your kid’s soccer team, etc.”
Employee Safety Training: Key Principles
Principle 1: Employee Awareness
Any effective training program must first inform employees of the key hazards they face in their workplace. An ergonomic assessment may prove invaluable in this part of the training process, as it will provide managers and safety educators with clear definitions of the risks inherent to their facilities and tasks. From there, an ergonomist can hand-tailor a training program to the needs of each facility, department and individual worker. The most successful programs combine classroom instruction with practical training that occurs in the actual work environment.
“You want to instill a safety culture where everyone is aware of the hazards they should be looking for,” DeMoss said. “That could be a hazard like a spill on the floor or a piece of debris that needs to be picked up. Everybody’s safety is your responsibility.”
Principle 2: Biomechanics & Task Technique Training
The field of biomechanics combines concepts from the sciences of physics, anatomy, biology and engineering to define the best, safest ways for the human body to execute a particular motion or task. Too often, these techniques are not naturally instilled in employees when they begin work, leading to improper and risky behaviors and motions that can lead to serious injuries, chronic pain and fatigue. For example, common movements, such as lifting while twisting the body or improper bending technique, can lead to back and spine injuries, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars to the employer per case.
Training for effective pre-shift preparation can help employees ready their bodies for the rigors of the job. Instead of outdated stretch-and-flex regimens, today’s ergonomists recommend isometric exercises that do more than simply stretch muscles and other soft tissues, increasing blood flow to key areas to improve strength and resilience.
Principle 3: Management Engagement and Training
Ultimately, no safety training program can succeed without buy-in from site managers, safety leaders and the engineers who develop facility equipment. First and foremost, employees must feel safe to report risk factors to their supervisors without fear of retaliation—moreover, they must feel confident that their concerns will be heard and taken seriously. This requires fostering a positive safety culture from the top of the organization on down. Managers, supervisors and executives should be well-versed in the most common risk factors affecting their workers, as well as the solutions in play to help address those hazards and keep employees safe. An Ergonomics 101 course or ERGOAware training can help managers and leaders understand risks; learn how to identify them; and provide simple fixes they can implement to effect change.
Safety Training: Common Mistakes to Avoid
Keep these common errors in mind when developing and implementing a safety and ergonomics training program at your worksites.
Mistake 1: Adhering to Past Behaviors
Habit is a powerful force that can help employers instill safe behaviors, but only when the organization is committed to adopting proper techniques and new programs—even when they’re substantially different from what’s been tried before. Managers and floor supervisors, in particular, should remain open to change and not eschew new training and safety concepts in favor of old ones simply because they’ve always been done that way. Change is constant—make sure your employees and managers understand that can be a good thing.
Mistake 2: Avoiding Long-Term Investment in Favor of Short-Term Savings
Similarly, it’s essential to recognize the long-term benefits of investment in safety training. Employers that implement up-to-date safety protocols and ergonomic training regimens are virtually certain to see the payoffs add up over the years—in many cases, training can provide ROI of up to 600% on the dollar. Up-front costs of training should never discourage employers from realizing the long-term cost savings that come with properly trained and educated workers.
Effective ergonomics and safety training programs always involve engagement with the affected workers and buy-in from management. Remain open-minded to new concepts and recommendations from certified ergonomists and ensure that any training programs encourage a holistic culture of safety throughout the organization, and you’re on your way to lower injury rates, higher cost savings and a healthier organizational outlook for the future.
About the Author
Kevin Lombardo is a widely recognized thought leader with substantial experience in workplace safety and injury prevention. Having worked as CEO and a Senior Executive for many large organizations, along with his significant experience in the healthcare space, Kevin’s unique perspective illuminates the critical intersections between talent, assets and ideas—the dynamic formula that drives business performance.