A Unique Approach to Workforce Wellness


John Schlyer, CPE
Wichita, KS 

When the problem of RSI is viewed through the eyes of an ergonomist common words for defining potential risk factors might be, hand tool design, task repetition, ambient temperature, rest pauses, static muscle flexing, location of work in relation to the body's neutral envelope, body posture. We have benefited greatly from the science of Ergonomics. Research and iterative design improvements have consistently optimized the "human / machine / system" interface, forever influencing both our work and leisure lives.

If ergonomics were a mural on the wall of life it would be painted with a broad brush, from diverse disciplines like physiology, psychology, and industrial engineering. All these perspectives contribute to develop the mural and each with smaller, "focused" brushes and intricate strokes add their unique scientific insights to the problem solving synergy that is ergonomics.

Research efforts and a national focus on workforce injury/illness experiences over the past ten years have helped in gaining a better perspective on the factors required for the reduction and control of RSI. In recent years, the psychosocial aspects of process improvement have been introduced through the "lean manufacturing", teaming approach. The teaming has focused on identifying, and developing individual habits that promote process effectiveness. The psychosocial expectations of today's workforce are different from the workers of previous generations. Today's workers expect that owners and management will allocate more responsibility to them. This concept of ownership and teaming has been proven efficient across many industries and most workers are anxious to assume more ownership in their day-to-day work world.

Team ownership of many process elements fosters an entrepreneurial atmosphere in the production environment. It encourages communication and an interpersonal support network that contributes to improved workforce morale and overall process improvement.

As we began developing our improved wellness model, our question was, "why wouldn't this same teaming approach, being used in manufacturing processes, work well in a process focused on individual wellness"? If the primary mission of ergonomics is to prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), and the primary mission of safety programs is to ensure OSHA compliance and prevent the one time, "catastrophic" types of injury, couldn't empowered teams have a positive impact on those wellness goals? We recognized the power of "empowered worker teams" to help each individual assume a sense of "ownership" in their manufacturing process, and believed that the same ownership in daily wellness, could improve Lost Work Day Case numbers.

Each worker is encouraged, through training, team stretching participation, increased water consumption, and wellness information boards, to build healthy habits at work and with their families. This not only results in better overall quality of life in the workplace and at home, but also reduces the monetary costs of injury/illness for both the worker and the employer.

Our basic paradigm has three interlocking circles that show the relationship of Safety, Ergonomics, and Individual / Team Initiative. The largest of the circles is that of the Team, because that is where the greatest amount of ownership lies and also where the greatest impact is felt when someone does become a statistic of an MSD or catastrophic injury.

One key element is that people no longer see themselves as inanimate numbers on some manager's monthly briefing chart, but as individually important "roots" of a "wellness plant" that they all have an active part in nourishing. This attitude of involvement and ownership has had a very positive impact not only on reducing the number of sprain/strain injuries in our aerospace production environment, but also on increasing workforce morale.

The important contributions of certain, "wellness factors", toward a persons overall health have been touted by the medical community for a long time. Balanced nutrition, adequate hydration with water, cardiovascular exercise, and musculoskeletal stretching are accepted as basic building blocks of personal health. Additional research has provided insight about the negative effect of oxidation on the human's various physiological systems. A Wellfocus process provides opportunity and interpersonal encouragement for each team member to build healthy habits in all of the above mentioned areas.

The Wellfocus paradigm for workplace wellness provides opportunities, during normal working hours, for voluntary participation in a stretching group. The teams stretch for 10 minutes in the morning about 30 minutes after they arrive at work and again for 10 minutes right after the lunch break.

The importance of proper hydration is stressed to all participants. Bottled water is available at a reduced cost, through a distribution system of refrigerators, most of which are employee provided. All of the water is purchased and stocked into the refrigerators by workers on their own time. The team members encourage each other to "build the water habit" and give each other a good-natured "hard time" when they are not drinking enough water.

The results of the first year of Wellfocus was that there were "zero" LWD cases due to Sprain and Strain for those workers who volunteered to participate. They represented about 30% of the 1400 person workforce engaged in fabrication, assembly, and office jobs. The other 70% of the workforce that did not participate had close to 15 LWD cases due to Sprain and Strain. An industry assessment of the average cost of a LWD case is around $ 50,000.

This year we are maintaining the gains accomplished in 2000 and looking for ways to involve more team members in cardiovascular exercise 3 to 4 times per week for 20 to 30 minutes at the individual's "target heart rate". We also are providing more emphasis on nutrition's role in preventing MSDs.

Our goal is not to award doughnuts and ball caps at the end of a measurement period for "no injuries", instead, we encourage early disclosure of MSD symptoms so workers do not develop serious injury. Motivation to attend each stretch session is provided, in part, by having a worker's name put into a hat once for each time they attended a stretching session. Names are drawn out of a hat at the end of each month and 10 winners are awarded with a small gift certificate. We will continue to track team results on a monthly basis and provide the feedback to the teams

About the Author:
John Schlyer, CPE, has been working as a human factors analyst and an ergonomist for the past 18 years. Part of his workload over the past 4 years has been supporting "lean manufacturing" teams to address ergonomic problems that have been identified in manufacturing processes.  The wellness-teaming concept reflects some of the new, effective approaches being applied through "lean" initiatives. John is the President of a consulting company that specializes in ergonomic program development and unique hardware/workstation design and prototyping for manufacturing and health care settings.

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Last Updated: 08/31/01