How Engaging Workers and Leadership on Ergonomic Best Practices Can Improve Worker Safety

Hear from two successful companies — Seattle City Light and Honda of Canada Manufacturing — on how employee engagement has helped make their respective ergonomic programs a success.
By: | September 10, 2020

Improving safety in the workplace not only cuts expenses but can also improve both efficiency and boost performance. A key component of workplace safety is ergonomics, which seeks to create work environments that fit workers’ needs, reduce risk and discomfort, and improve safety and productivity.

Thanks to the pandemic and its necessity for work-from-home, it has never been more prudent to address proper ergonomics.

That’s why, despite the pandemic-related cancellation of the in-person 2020 National Ergonomics Conference & ErgoExpo®, the conference has committed to delivering informative, virtual education throughout the remainder of 2020 and through till the in-person event scheduled in 2021.

The conference’s one-day live event, which was held on August 26, brought three, distinct sessions with lots to learn on proper ergonomics in a work from home environment to the actual ergonomic furniture and devices used.

Next up in the on-going series of online and on-demand sessions, two ergonomic experts will address different aspects of creating a culture that embraces ergonomics, engages both management and workers, and is sustained over the long-term. These sessions will be held on September 16, starting at 2 p.m. EST. Registration is open now.

What to Expect from the Latest Ergo Session Additions

At the Sept. 16 event, attendees will learn details and get tips from the experiences of two large companies that have instituted and are reaping the rewards of their ergonomics programs.

David Catallo, manufacturing safety leader at Honda of Canada Manufacturing, will present “A Practical Approach to Ergonomics: Leadership Engagement and Development.”

Keith Osborne, ergonomist at Seattle City Light, Seattle’s publicly-owned electric power utility, will deliver the session “Building and Sustaining a World-Class Ergonomics Process.”

Catallo’s session will show how top level management is engaged and motivated to act as leaders for safety. With that kind of approach, Honda of Canada Manufacturing has been able to achieve significant risk reduction and a cultural shift. Catallo will give an overview of that approach and demonstrate how others can also apply the approach to their own businesses.

For Osborne, prepare to see what it takes to build a successful ergonomics program in spite of the daunting nature of starting from scratch. The session will focus on both understanding the journey for building a successfully integrated process and sustaining that success long term. Included in the topic coverage is maturity levels of developing processes and where a program fits in.

Seattle City Light’s Ergonomic Plan in Action

Osborne estimates that the ergonomics program at Seattle City Light has saved more than $65 million in direct and indirect costs over the six years that he has been at the utility.

Keith Osborne, ergonomist, Seattle City Light

The task of better incorporating ergonomics into the company that has about 1,800 employees, several dams in different states, substations throughout Seattle and has more than 280 job classifications — such as customer service representatives, engineers, line workers, underground workers, field workers and janitors — was daunting at first.

“It was a little overwhelming when I first got here and saw the scope and how spread out we are,” said Osborne. “It was daunting, but we knew we had to section off how we built our ergonomics process. It needed to be detailed but not overwhelming to the point where people wouldn’t use it.”

Analysis helped Osborne decide where to focus first: “I brought in online risk management tools to help me assess risk, prioritize tasks and take bites of that apple,” he said. “That way, we were looking at the more high-risk jobs before we were looking at other things.”

He said getting feedback from employees and increasing engagement were crucial in establishing their successful program.

“Employee engagement is a big cornerstone of ergonomics,” Osborne said. “If you don’t engage employees and get them to buy into the process, it will go nowhere.”

To that end, demonstrating the cost savings and how ergonomics can help employees is another important step: “My big thing is to get employees to understand that ergonomics is there to help them,” he said. “It’s not one of those ‘Oh, geez. I’m going to come in and look at your job tasks and tell you that you’re all messed up and here’s how you’re going to fix it.’ That’s not how I do things.”

Instead, Osborne works directly with employees to discover and address safety risks. He meets with workers to ask them what their biggest risks are, what makes their jobs difficult, and how they would suggest fixing it.

For Seattle City Light, the process of reviewing job tasks took about a year and a half to two years to complete. In that time, Osborne also instituted a policy of welcoming employee suggestions of tools or other improvements to make their jobs easier and safer.

“I’ll look at the process, the job task and the tool they want to trial,” Osborne said. “If it shows that it’s an improvement over what they’ve been doing and reduces risk, and there’s a good ROI on all those things, then the organizational unit is allowed to buy them.”

Honda of Canada Manufacturing’s Key to Success

Like Osborne, Catallo said that engagement is key to building a successful ergonomics program.

David Catallo, manufacturing safety leader, Honda of Canada Manufacturing

“I like the participatory approach,” he said. “I’m trying to engage both management and the production side into ergonomics.”

Catallo estimates that injuries have been reduced at the company by 75% since 1990. Perhaps even more importantly, he says 302 employees are involved in promoting safety compared to 23 in 1990.

Those employees are divided into different committees or specialist teams that focus on various aspects of safety. One of the teams, which has 150 members, are ergonomic specialists who provide information and support to workers who’ve experienced a stress or strain and help new hires develop safe work habits and techniques.

Catallo said a peer-based approach of promoting ergonomics, rather than an individual dispensing safety advice, has worked well for the company, which is based in Alliston, Ontario and has 4,300 employees.

A peer is better able to provide advice that co-workers will accept, he said. “If it were me, I’d have to spend time building a rapport [with workers] before they would take the advice I had to give.”

The team approach has helped focus 150 sets of eyes on safety and “sets you up for success beyond any individual initiative, because you have an engaged culture,” he said.

Like Seattle City Light, the company also pays attention to workers’ suggestions. The team that designs vehicles at Honda of Canada is responsive to workers’ concerns about the stresses and strains they experience when building a vehicle. If workers complain, for instance, that a feature in the center of the car is hard to reach, then the team may move it to a more accessible place on the side.

“They will tweak how things are laid out in the vehicle,” Catallo said.

The company’s approach to safety and ergonomics has changed over the years from merely seeking to conform to compliance issues to building a proactive culture that embraces safety. While saving the company money is one benefit of improving safety, Catallo said emphasizing the personal benefits of ergonomics appeals to both production workers and management.

“I think when we get personal, it works better. It works when employees think, ‘I want to work safely, because I have a family to go home to,’ ” he said.

The Number One Lesson: Engage Employees

Whether it is welcoming suggestions from employees of better tools or creating teams of safety-focused employees, the key to promoting ergonomics is engaging employees.

“It’s these kind of things we’re doing to really get employees engaged and understand that they’re the key component to help mitigate risk, make them more productive and get them home safely,” Osborne said.

To learn more about these sessions or to sign up for the Sept. 16 event, visit here. Also, check out the ongoing ErgoExpo virtual, on-demand sessions here to see what’s next in the series! &

Annemarie Mannion is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].

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