Ergonomic Success Requires Leadership

Walt Rostykus

Walt Rostykus

Over the years, I’ve met environment, health and safety (EHS) managers who are convinced that by driving safety and ergonomics through a grassroots approach,  some day the initiative will catch on with supervisors, managers and company leaders as an infectious commitment.

“If you build it, he will come” may have worked for Ray Kinsella in the movie “Field of Dreams”, but let’s get real folks: This approach is a shot in the dark for quickly and effectively improving and sustaining safety and performance in the workplace.

Indeed, the key elements of leadership in maintaining an effective and sustainable ergonomic improvement process are no different than those of an EHS system, company culture, or any other aspect of a business. The bottom line is that leadership must occur from the top.

A wise person once noted, “What interests my manager motivates me.” This is the key to leading a safety and ergonomics process over time. Think about it: At work your priorities and activities are guided by how your manager tracks and measures your performance. It is our experience that when managers, engineers, supervisors and employees have a clear understanding of their involvement in the effort to improve workplace ergonomics (and they are held accountable to those expectations), effective workplace changes are made.

Yet leading an ergonomics process is not usually intuitive to many in top management roles. As an EHS manager, however, you are in a position to coach top management on the few things they need to do; simply put, they need to hold their direct reports accountable for ergonomics performance (see my prior blog on effective goals and metrics for ergonomics). The four most important things they can do to make sure this happens are:

  • Set clear expectations (responsibilities, goals, roles, targets)
  • Provide people with the resources, tools and training they need to meet their responsibilities
  • Visibly and actively monitor and track progress
  • Take action when expectations are not met

Fortunately this four-step approach is not foreign to managers and supervisors. They follow some form of these steps to complete work, build widgets and manage production. Leaders in safety should apply the same approach (accountability) to influence, guide and lead their organization to success. It’s all about planning, managing and following through.

Kurt, my climbing instructor from several decades ago, was a great illustration of how not to lead by example. His immortal words “Do as I say, not as I do” sent a mixed message. While he told us to wear the correct helmet and always climb while belayed, he climbed bare-headed and without a lifeline. He was technically knowledgeable, but clearly not a leader.

On the contrary, Dave Packard, Bill Hewlett and Bob Hall were true leaders, who set expectations for performance (including safety) and held people, including general managers, accountable for the quality and safety of their workplace.

Whether you base your company ergonomics program on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) models, the Safety Management System, lean manufacturing or continuous improvement, strong and visible leadership by people in top management is critical for ensuring that engineers design tools to fit the first time; employee teams  reduce exposure to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSD) risk factors before injuries occur; and that employees adjust their own work stations to best fit them.

If improving ergonomics is a priority for your organization, does your top management team lead by example? Have they set performance expectations, goals, and clear roles? Do they track performance?

If not, what have you done to best prepare them to lead?

About Walt Rostykus

Walt Rostykus is a vice president with Humantech Inc., a consulting firm that combines the science of ergonomics with the company’s unique 30-Inch View® to deliver practical solutions that impact safety, quality, and productivity.

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