As Mark Twain once noted, “Training is everything.” Training is an integral part of any successful business operation. It is the process we use to improve employee skills and to increase employee proficiency at work. Quite simply, education provides us with information, but training takes that information and helps to develop skills, and skilled behavior is fundamental to productive work. Given its fundamental importance to work performance, it’s no surprise that research on training has been an important area of ergonomics for the past 50 years. Many companies have personnel and even departments devoted to workplace training, and training in ergonomics should be an integral part of any corporate ergonomics program. So how should training be conducted and what’s the evidence that it works?
Today, businesses have an unprecedented choice in the ways that they can deliver training content to their employees, but some ways are more effective than others at certain times during the training process. Training should be delivered in a language and at a level that is suitable for the employees. Based on the literature, here’s what a successful three-phase ergonomics training program should contain.
Phase 1: Introduction to Relevant Ergonomics Information
Employees need to learn the basics about ergonomics as it relates to their area of work. Such training needs to include information on how the body works and what injury risk factors to look out for, what are the early symptoms and signs of injury, how to choose and use the best ergonomic tools for the job, how to change work practices to reduce injury risks and improve work performance, and how to contact someone for further information or help if a problem is identified. If there’s time, employees can also be trained in how to stretch and exercise. The ergonomics training needs to be customized to the nature of the work, and this works best when it is based on task analysis of the job. For example, the issues faced by nurses are not all the same as those faced by construction workers or by office workers, and while there’s some overlap, information training needs to be specific to the job requirements. Typically, this type of training involves employees attending group sessions from 30 minutes to three hours in length.
Although there are a variety of ways that employees can obtain the basic training information, such as self-paced training kits, ergonomics videos and web-based training, it is often most successful when presented by a professional instructor in a face-to-face situation, because this allows the greatest opportunities for questions and interaction between employees and the instructor. For larger organizations a train-the-trainer approach can be an excellent way to implement ergonomics training.
Phase 2: Application of Ergonomics Principles
Having learned about the principles, employees need to be able to apply them to their job. Sometimes this simply means encouraging employees to make suitable changes to the layout of their workspace or adjustments to ergonomic tools they have. Sometimes this requires giving the employees appropriate ergonomic tools to improve their work, because it’s no use learning good principles if the employee can’t apply them because of inadequate tools. Sometimes this involves others observing how the employee is working to ensure that their work posture has improved and helping them to make appropriate adjustments to their workspace.
Phase 3: Ergonomics Refresher Information
Even with the best will in the world, in time we forget information. It is important to provide employees with some way of reminding themselves about refreshing their ergonomics knowledge. Workplace posters, employee handouts, ergonomics software, newsletters and periodic employee meetings can all be effective reminders. Access to self-paced ergonomics training kits, ergonomics videos and web-based ergonomics training can be very effective ways of refreshing information to employees. Periodic ergonomics training is essential when work technology changes, if workplaces are redesigned or if employees change. Employees should attend short refresher training sessions to hear about the latest ergonomics information at least every three years.
There’s good scientific evidence that good ergonomics training can be effective. Office ergonomics training has been shown to result in improvements in employee-initiated workspace layout changes and in the use of ergonomic aids. Ergonomics training has been shown to improve the patient handling skills of nurses and to improve work practices in construction workers. Though the research results for training programs can be impressive, sometimes training alone will not produce the desired benefits if employees do not have the tools to allow them to implement the training. Consequently, to achieve maximum impact on work performance, ergonomics training has to be accompanied by the introduction of appropriate work tools and work practices, and as such it can become an integral part of improvements to the overall work system.
Alan Hedge, Ph.D.
Professor, Human Factors and Ergonomics
Dr. Hedge is a Full Professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Cornell University, where he directs the Human Factors and Ergonomics teaching and research programs. For a list of references used to prepare this guest opinion, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through http://ergo.human.cornell.edu.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2003-08-01.