Participatory Ergonomics with Troy Winters


Pre-recorded Introduction: Welcome to Health and Safety to Go, a production of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

CCOHS: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Health and Safety to Go. Joining us on the phone today is Troy Winters, the Senior Officer for Health and Safety at †Canadian Union of Public Employees Ė also knowns as CUPE. Today Troy is going to share his perspective on participatory ergonomics and how it can contribute to a healthier workplace. Thanks for being here today Troy!

Troy: Thank you for having me.

CCOHS: Troy, your area of expertise is ergonomics and you also practice health and safety. You speak about Fully Participatory Ergonomics; so can you tell us what that is and why itís important?

Troy: Sure, so first I think we should talk a little about what ergonomics is. Put simply, ergonomics is the study of the relationship between workers and their work. And really what is it is, itís an application of many different scientific principles from across many different disciplines, that attempts to create a healthy and safe workplace by considering the ways that we do work and the way that we can do work that actually helps promote worker wellbeing. The ultimate goal is to really ensure that the jobs are properly designed and to do this we need to make sure that they are actually tailored to meet the needs of the individual workers. So put simply; work should be designed to fit the mental and physical skills of the worker and workers shouldnít be forced to fit into a mould - into a job they donít actually fit in.

Now, participatory ergonomics is a particular philosophy around the application of ergonomics. It starts from the assumption that when you involve a full cross-section of the organization, that is workers and management, to help identify the hazards and control the risks, you bring in different sources of information to the problem and therefore you have better outcomes. Now, the benefits of the participatory ergonomics approach is that by bringing in the broader organizational knowledge you have a broader view of the physical, the social, and the psychological factors associated with the injuries within the organization. Much more than you would normally get by just working with an upper management person or just working with one or two other workers.

Now in a unionized environment we push for whatís called the fully participatory ergonomic process. We know that change doesnít happen in a vacuum. And there are a lot of factors to consider within the world of labour relations, so providing space for involvement with the union, both the union executive and the members of the workplace committee or the policy committees Öis essential to the process. Itís not only essential to the process but provides you additional opportunity such as designing a communications strategy which keeps everyone in the loop about whatís going on. So by bringing together the multi-layered team itís assumed that they are more likely to get buy-in along the whole process. So, from your planning to your designing to your implementation, by bringing in the broader team you get better buy-in. This leads to better outcomes and in the end works better for everybody.

CCOHS: How do you see ergonomics fitting into the broader picture of the health and safety of an organization? Can you give us an example of how this works?

Troy: Sure. There is [are] actually very few jurisdictions which have specific regulations or laws around ergonomics. However, we know in all jurisdictions itís the role of the employer to provide a healthy and safe workplace. So, in my role as a health and safety officer for the union I tend to find that most of my members know when their jobs are hurting them. And sometimes itís not all that easy to get the employers onside, or at least those are the calls I get. I never get the calls where people are happy and things are going great.

Whenever I do a workshop Iím always pushing CUPE members to expand the scope of ergonomics. And we talk about this a lot when I do my ergonomics workshop; I get to do it four or five times a year. When we consider ergonomics at our workplace we have to, we need to think about the traditional hazards, like the physical force, the repetition, the postures. But we need to go up beyond those basics and think about things like the lighting, the noise, the vibration levels, the good air quality. We need to think about how we can reduce the stress that is experienced by the workers and this stress has a lot of contributing factors including the workload, eliminating unwanted overtime, and preventing work from becoming boring and monotonous (thatís another common thing weíve seen). Ultimately we want to increase the level of control we have over our work and the decisions that are made about how the work should be done and this really goes straight to one of the basics of the three rights of workers which is the right to participate, and itís really the right to participate in determining how the work should be done and what some of the hazards are.

One of the examples I have comes from a project Iíve been working on for almost a year and half now. This is actually the case study that Iíll be talking a bit more about at the forum in Vancouver. One of our locals represents the flight attendants for one of the major airlines in Canada and about two years ago the policy and workplace committee started noticing that there was a trend in the number of the musculoskeletal injuries they were observing. So they started a project, a six months in I joined as the ergonomist, ††that involved participation at all levels of the organization to try to figure out how they could reduce these musculoskeletal injuries and some of the other complaints they were getting at the workplace committee and the policy committee. So there was already a number of mid-level management folks from the organization participating at the workplace committee and the policy committee. †But once I got involved, we started having meeting with the number two person in the company and of course because I was working directly through the union we had access to pretty much all of the workers at the workplace, so that we were able to get a very broad range of views and opinions of not only the causes, but more importantly some feedback on some of our proposed solutions when we were coming up with them.

CCOHS: What do you see as being the biggest barrier to making positive ergonomic interventions in the workplace?

Troy: I think thereís probably several barriers, the first and foremost is probably trying to rush the job. If you try to rush and you donít provide enough resources to the project I think youíre going to have a huge problem creating the success youíre looking for within the organization. Organizations try to bring in a specialist; they try to bring in an ergonomist to quickly solve some of the identified problems but they donít provide any space or resources or any tools for any real involvement beyond just the one person who basically hired the ergonomist. They come in, they have a meeting, they say fix our problems, they try their best, I take nothing away from the skill of the ergonomist but they run into some very big organizational walls that, if you donít give the time and they resources for, you canít really fight against those. And the project ends up failing and nothing gets fixed and thatís probably because of my second reason which is resistance to change.

In general people donít like change. Even if itís potentially positive change people just push back against change. And this gets even worse if theyíre not consulted.† And if they donít see a reason why they would want to make the change thereís going to be push back. And if you have pushback, it doesnít matter what level of the organization pushes back, whether itís the upper management that doesnít want to spend the money or workers who just donít understand why they would want to change or werenít consulted on how the job was being done in the first place, youíre going to get push back. And then youíre not going to get a successful intervention and positive change.

So as ergonomists, we learn a number of design principles and usually the application of the design principle brings about positive change. But if you donít have the consultation and if you donít talk to the workers, the workers know their jobs the best and if youíre not speaking with them you could just as easily cause more problems by blindly applying the ergonomic principles to the job without actually consulting with the workers. The more complex the system, of course, the greater the chances that there will be unintended consequences. So to go back to my example from before where I was working with the airline, we went through, I actually went onboard, we did some flights, we were looking at the way the jobs were being done, and I started formulating some ideas on how to make the jobs better. The first couple of recommendations that we came up withÖ we started talking with the workers and there was actually a mid-level management person on the flight with me, and the first couple of things they came back with ďno, we canít do that. It would unbalance the plane and the plane would crashĒ , for example. So not going to work. So based on that, plus other Canadian aviation regulations, the first couple of ideas just werenít going to work. And if we didnít have that level of participation then I may have started pushing ideas that just simply were never going to be adopted and certainly werenít going to be helpful.

I think probably the final barrier that I wanted to mention is trust. And there has to be trust through all levels of the project and this is probably the reverse of what normally happens. When I got involved with the airline project it was because the members of the union wanted to bring me in and we had been talking about ergonomics and I had taught a few workshops. So they said ďwe have a guy that we can bring in for free. Normally itís the management that wants to bring in an ergonomist and we see the trust issue being from the workers. But this time it was the upper management who, while there was a pretty good and reasonable working relationship at the policy and workplace committees, they didnít have a lot of the national unions. So, it wasnít until I was able to actually come in and meet with the folks and talk about our common goals of both making the workplace safe but also making sure that the organization stayed profitable, or even increasing profits, that they finally trusted me enough to actually let me get really involved with the project and actually come on board a flight.

CCOHS: Do you have any closing thoughts youíd like to share with our listeners today?

Troy: Sure. Whenever I teach a workshop I always want to provide my members with resources and tools that I can leave behind that they can actually work within their workplaces and try to bring about some change. So I want to take a few moments to speak about one tool. Taking on a participatory ergonomics project probably seems quite daunting if youíve never done it before. So if youíre looking for one tool, or at least one place to start, the Canadian Standards Association back in 2012 released a standard called CSA Z-1004 and itís called Workplace Ergonomics - Management and Implementation Standards, which can actually be bought from the CCOHS website. Now, while this is a management standard, the technical committee actually took an extra six months and developed a full suite of tools at the end of the standard. It starts off with a huge checklist that goes through 22 different categories and areas that one would want to look at if you were starting an ergonomics review of your organization. And everything is very clearly laid out and well-explained. After the checklist it actually goes through each of the 22 sections and provides additional background information for what you should be looking for when youíre doing your checks and going through the checklist. And, while it would in no way replace having an ergonomist actually coming in to help you, it would allow any size organization to really start to look at the issues and problems, and potential solutions for some of the things they may find in their workplace. And itís been designed to work for any size organization. I canít recommend that strongly enough. Thatís probably one of the best resources out there for setting up a fully participatory ergonomic approach in the workplace.

CCOHS: Thank you again for joining us today Troy.

Troy: Thank you very much.

CCOHS: Troy will be covering this topic more in depth as a speaker at CCOHSí Forum 2016: The Changing World of Work in February 2016. For more information about this event and Troyís presentation, please visit the CCOHS website Thanks for listening everyone.