I have a smart, bad dog…what does that have to do with ergonomics?

Dogs are smart, and they learn just like people learn. We taught our border collie cross, Ursa to ring a bell on our door when she wants to be let out. Smart, right? And she knows where the boundaries of her electronic fence are. But she WILL NOT walk on a leash. Why is that? Well, it’s because she’s smart, and we’ve trained her to pull. Say what? Well, we didn’t mean to do that, but when we allowed her to pull on the leash, she learned that pulling harder made US move faster. (While we understand the technique for training a dog on a leash, we lack the patience to carry it out. Ursa has a lot of opportunity to run off-leash, so fortunately, our lack of skill doesn’t limit her exercise.)

What does this have to do with ergonomics? (If it’s in our blog, it must have some relevance, given our obsession with all things ergo.) Humans learn just like dogs learn. With positive reinforcement, we learn to do the things that we’re being rewarded for. I make dinner, kids say it was delicious, and I repeat tomorrow. Negative reinforcement works, too, but we don’t like it as much. I burn dinner, kids push it around on their plates, and I take “blackened” chicken off the menu plan.

If we want people to do things a certain way, we need to offer reinforcement. To teach people a new technique, you need to provide positive reinforcement when they get it right, and correction when they get it wrong. This is the step in the presentation-application-feedback training cycle that is most often missed. We’re good at “telling and showing”, and “practicing”, but we often fall short when it comes to providing feedback.

An example?

Workers were reaching to retrieve parts from a conveyor, instead of stepping close. The ergonomist realised that this was partly because the anti-fatigue matting didn’t extend close to the conveyor; stepping off the mat felt unstable, so the workers kept their feet on the mat and reached out with their arms. They avoided foot instability, but the ergonomist was concerned about the demands on the arms and back.

After extending the anti-fatigue matting to allow the worker to step closer to the conveyor, we need to encourage new habits. Some workers are very set in their routines; even though taking a half-step closer greatly eases the load on their arms and backs, they need to make a conscious effort to change their habits. The ergonomist points out the difference, encourages them to try stepping closer, and gives them positive feedback when they do so. Workers who are motivated to reduce discomfort are most likely to adopt a proposed technique change. The “carrot” is a reduction in pain….it’s built-in reinforcement. (In case the cheering ergonomist on the sidelines is not enough! If only I had similar patience and persistence with my dog!)

New wearable technology aims to provide feedback (a beep or a buzz) when employees bend their backs or reach overhead. This type of reinforcement is great, as long as the workplace is designed to allow good work postures to be used. “Buzzing” a mechanic for overhead work while changing mufflers is just plain dumb….how else would this job get completed?

If you need some help to identify and encourage best practices at your workplace, give us a call!

If you’d like to offer hands-on training to workers in your facility, we have face-2-face sessions that focus on manual handling, outdoor work, office work (traditional, and sit/stand), industrial work, and driving. We’re working on virtual training (remotely leader-led) for manual handlers…let me know if you’d like to be a test site.

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