“You don’t realise how much your posture affects your health until it has been explained to you“
“Now I realise what strain I put my body under just by working everyday”
“Very much enjoyed the training and I hope it benefits me in the long run”
“It showed me how small changes can make a big difference. I feel much less tired by the end of the day ”
These are just a few of the comments made by employees who participated in the Intralox Smart Ergonomics program in Amsterdam and Kingswinford. A very special remark came from one of the employees who told us that she had had to take painkillers before work every day because of aches and pain in her shoulder, wrist and back. It is now a few weeks after the training. She has changed the way she works and she doesn’t need painkillers anymore. What a wonderful result!
“I now know how to handle goods correctly and stand in the correct position”.
Intralox is well aware of its duty to provide a safe working environment for its employees. It’s especially important for INTRALOX as most of the activities in the warehouses, assembly plants and offices can be described as physical activities and include factors that contribute to the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). As the Musculoskeletal System is the most important tool used to get the work done, everyone working at Intralox is ‘at risk’. This is why training was given in Amsterdam (2015) and Kingswinford (2016). Its goal was to reduce the number and severity of MSDs resulting from physical strain by applying ergonomic principles.
Musculoskeletal Disorders and work-related risk factors
Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) are injuries and disorders that affect the human body’s movement or musculoskeletal system. They involve damage to the muscles, tendons, ligaments or cartilage. The most well known MSDs are carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, muscle or tendon strain, ligament Sprain and tension neck syndrome. Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) are a common and costly problem for people and companies. Across Europe, it is estimated that 44 million workers have MSDs which are caused by their work.
Intralox Smart Ergonomics in Amsterdam & Kingswinford
The ISE-program was developed and run by 2 Dutch trainers, Beppie Snoek (Physiotherapist) and Marc de Vries (Human Movement Scientist). They are coaches at “Buro voor Fysieke Arbeid” and each have more than 15 years of experience in training companies on how to reduce MSDs and implement better working practises. The program that was developed followed 4 steps.
Step 1. Making an Inventory of Risk Factors
To ensure that all relevant information had been included in the program an inventory was carried out prior to the training on both locations. Three primary ergonomic risk factors were identified:
- Intensive task repetition, for example repetitive movements when building belts.
- Strenuous effort, such as lifting heavy boxes or rods.
Repetitive or sustained awkward poses, for instance when working with machines. The most important factor is the strain on the joints and the overload of the muscles and tendons around the affected joint. Joints of the body are most efficient when they operate closest to the mid-range motion of the joint. Risk of MSD is increased when joints are worked outside of this mid-range repetitively or for sustained periods of time without adequate recovery time. Once this inventory had been made, a program was developed wherein training was the most important element. It ensures that workers are aware of ergonomics and its benefits, become informed about ergonomics related concerns in the workplace, and understand the importance of reporting early symptoms of MSDs. This will enable Intralox to anticipate and act on physical workload immediately.
Step 2. Training the coaches
The trainers of Buro voor Fysieke Arbeid (BvFA) trained employees in Amsterdam (6) and Kingswinford (9) to become “Ergonomics coaches”. Some coaches focused on office work (4) and others were trained to coach the manufacturing workers (11). The training program was divided into 4 stages. First, the coaches learned the most important concepts related to ‘physical workload’. They learned about the musculoskeletal system (joints, ligaments, muscles Then they learned about the most important factors contributing to physical workload and how they could reduce this. Besides the 4 tips listed in the textbox on the next page, we also talked about using your energy wisely.
One of the employees joked that he always works in ‘energy save’ mode, just like his Iphone. “At the beginning of the day my battery is fully charged. If I use my energy unwisely then by lunchtime it is down to 30% – and I still need it for 4 hours more! So I have to be economical! I try to work at a constant pace all day and not to make unwise movements”.
Secondly, the coaches learned the appropriate techniques (motor skills) for a wide range of actions made while working, like lifting boxes and building belts. Applying these specific techniques results in the minimization of physical workload. These techniques are only truly beneficial if the employeereally masters the techniques. This means that during the learning process we focused not only on improving performance over the period of practice time but also on ensuring that employees keep using the techniques well into the future.
Thirdly, the coaches learned how to teach other employees the appropriate techniques. This requires a few specific skills, such as watching how well their students do what they have been asked to do, and giving feedback so that they can improve.
Finally, an exam was given at the end of the learning process to see how well everyone had done. This exam was an important moment during the training. All of the coaches indicated that it had been a stressful day. In spite of their fears, they all passed the exam and demonstrated their new skills successfully. Even better, they all did really well – and didn’t just pass. They had all learnt their stuff well. No exceptions!
Both of the trainers were very proud of what they had pulled off and so were the coaches.
“At first I was unsure about the coaching. It is not always easy to coach colleagues. But I learned a lot and now I can help others to learn what I have learned! And so far, so good. My colleagues are positive about the coaching. No exeptions!”
Step 3. Ergonomic Workshops for Everyone
After successfully training the coaches, the Buro voor Fysieke Arbeid trainer ran workshops for the rest of the employees about ergonomics. This 3 hour session was both theoretical and practical. The workshop was followed by 3-6 training-on the-job sessions.
It is difficult for anyone to put what they have learnt into practise straight away. It takes a lot of conscious effort to learn. Therefore we explained the principles of changing fixed habits and learning new motorskills.
Change never happens overnight, it has to be worked on – step by step. This process is comparable to learning to swim or play the guitar. It takes weeks if not months to build up the new skills you need with a coach standing by to help and monitor your progress. The coach checks how you are going and gives you new exercises every week. Most of the work, though, is done by you. You do it either by yourself or with a colleague/work mate.
Most of the employees were interested and surprised by the information that was given in the workshop. They were all willing to try out the things they had learned in their own workplace but had never realised that they could make their physical work easier in the way we had described.
Tip 1: use joints in mid-range position
Joints of the body are most efficient when they operate closest to the mid-range motion of the joint. In this position the joint can generate more force and the physical strain is minimized. If you use the joint in the end position then you can damage the joint and all the structures connected with that joint like the cartilage or ligaments.
Tip 2: balance and good posture
It is important to have good posture. This means that your body is not rotated and that you are standing solidly. You are balanced securely on both feet. Make sure that the feet are positioned at shoulder width – or when you are working on your knees – that they are positioned slightly apart.
Tip 3: muscle fatique
Your muscles work best when you treat them nicely. You can put them to work, but they also need a rest every now and again. They can’t stay tense for too long, or they will stop working properly.
Tip 4: Distance and leverage
If the distance is short the weight of the box feels lighter (short distance) And this gives you an advantage because you are not wasting all your energy. So you can save your energy for other things
Step 4. Follow up
Perhaps the most important phase of the program is making sure that people keep working to prevent physical strain and MSD. This is why the coaches decided to get to together regularly to discuss how to improve work situations. These meetings are, of course, also to encourage each other to continue coaching the employees. The managers also attend this group to support the coaches and to follow up on the ideas straight away.
The program ran from September 2015 until February 2017. There were 60 employees who participated in the workshops in Amsterdam and 80 in Kingswinford.
Although the workshops have only recently been conducted, it’s clear that the program has been successful. These conclusions were drawn on the basis of observations, interviews and a questionnaire. This questionnaire was used in Kingswinford to to find out what the employees thought of the training. In the questionnaire six questions were asked about the trainer and about the information in the workshop and its relevance for their work.
Although not everyone has filled out the questionnaire, it is clear that a lot of employees are very positive. The training was entertaining, the information was clear and relevant, and more importantly, it motivated employees to make changes and improvements in their work.
Different types of improvements for the employees can be distinguished:
- Improvement in the workplace itself
- Machines have been placed differently to provide more space to work
- Some tables and racks have been adjusted in height so that items can be reached more easily but also for better working height overall. Some people are taller than others. Personal differences are important factors to take into account when setting up workplaces
- Now that everyone knows about ergonomics, everyone can change things for the better.
- Awareness of how employees use their body during their work and improvements based on that. A lot of employees mentioned that they have changed the way they make movements, for instance:
- using a good technique for lifting boxes
- better footwork
- less twisting of their back.
Comments on changes of movements in the questionnaire for example:
“I know that I should always stand on both feet”
“I changed the position of my stand”
“I will take more notice of my position when bending”
“being more aware about how I lift, turn & bend”
- The results of the training are very positive. A lot of employee’s can already see positive results after the workshop and the coaching sessions. Other employees said it was too early to tell, but that they believed it would help them in the long run. Some quotes from employees in personal interviews and in the questionnaire were:
“less back pain“
“less strain on body parts“
“ache less after work“
“less pain in my knee “
“I feel less tired on the weekend and my joints do not feel as strained as before“
This training was set up so that both employees and the company could benefit. Of course it’s highly beneficial if employees can work with less strain and pain and it has a big affect on their output. There are, however, also advantages for the company.
Working on physical strain and ergonomics not only helps reduce MSD and absenteeism. There is an important shift in ergonomics to other diverse business benefits that come from ergonomic changes. If employees feel better and stress their bodies less, then morale and motivation will improve. This will lead to other positive results such as:
- improved productivity due to tasks being completed faster, better posture, fewer unnecessary movements, better working places, less fatigue,
- higher quality work because employees do not have to work in awkward positions. This will lead to better focus and concentration and less waste.
- Better care of human resources by maintaining skill and knowledge.
- Better focus on the tactics (insight) of work by looking at the workprocess through ergonomic eyes. This will give other perspectives and new solutions for situations
After this short period of time, it is hard to tell if these results will all be achieved. They are difficult to measure. Initial responses from management, however, have been positive.This program was not set up because of current problems with absenteeism or MSD’s. It was set up because the management believed that in the long run it would help the company to stay competitive and provide a better working place for the employees. Moreover, they are all very happy with the overall positivity about the training.
As the program is based on two crucial elements of change management: a strong commitment by management and the participation and involvement of the employees, we are convinced the program will continue to run in the future and the desired results will eventually come. There is a significant chance smarter techniques are introduced sooner than we can anticipate.