Safety leader overcomes ergo challenges through humor, simplicity
In addition to handling plumbing, HVAC, landscaping, janitorial duties, elevators, security and other property manager-type functions, Mercado has gained the position of safety lead. She says by keeping the training simple and humorous safety professionals can get buy-in for ergonomic solutions from upper management as well as fellow employees.
"I try to make it fun," she said. "I believe in training through humor because I have sat through enough dull presentations myself."
Part of Mercado's job is ensuring compliance with state and federal regulations. In this part of her job, Mercado has become immersed in ergonomics, something for which she did not have a formal background. However, like many people who are taking on collateral duties, she has learned on the job.
Ergo and workers' comp.
While working as the assistant to the head of human resources, Mercado gained the responsibility of safety and ergonomics. It was there, she said, where the link between ergonomics and workplace injuries became evident.
"When I joined as her assistant, our workers' modification rate was extremely high," Mercado explained. "I would say that 95 percent of our employees spend the majority of their workday at the computer, so the claims were not from slips and falls, rather they were all musculoskeletal."
Mercado saw the need to be proactive to "slow down the various neck, back, wrist, and arm complaints." She came to learn that while there are challenges in handling ergonomics, connecting with workers on a human level can go a long way.
"Subtly addressing ergonomic issues gradually makes employees realize that this is to improve the quality of their work-life balance," she said. "I have also learned that it is important to make a concerted effort to follow up: How do you like your new keyboard tray? Is the adjustment to the chair working for you?"
As for employees' reluctance to change, Mercado said she has noticed gradual acceptance of what she's tried to do because she keeps things light. Part of that involves educating workers. While there are some "squeaky wheels," she says the norm is for most employees to keep quiet.
"I think people want to be heard and acknowledged," she said. "If they haven't spoken up, it can be because they don't know why they have those aches and pains. Or maybe they are just scared to complain."
Additionally, Mercado noted that workers sometimes have unrealistic expectations about how ergonomics works. "People think they should be able be able to adapt and feel the change within a few hours," she said. "I revisit in a week and find that the employee has moved everything back because 'it felt weird.'"
On top of this, Mercado has had the additional challenge of gaining acceptance among her peers. Due to her many roles, her coworkers don't consider her an expert when she tries to change a workplace setup.
"I am not looked upon as an ergonomics specialist, which of course is true," she explained. "However, I know how to help people avoid basic issues -- holding their phone with their shoulder, learning forward with their keyboard under the monitor, paperwork in front of it."
To combat employee resistance to ergonomic improvements, Mercado works to keep her instructions easy to understand. She's developed a one-page cheat sheet that she's gleaned from training materials and Web resources to give workers a quick guide to have handy at their desks.
Financial obstacles. It is also vitally important to have management's support for an ergonomics program to be successful, especially when it comes to finances. "Even though a full ergonomic consultation and all the various bells and whistles that stem from that could cost $1,500, while a workers' comp case can cost upwards of $40,000 in California, not to mention the loss of the employee's work, it's very difficult to persuade the 'powers that be' that a budget should include more than a few document holders," she explained.
In Mercado's case, she got some unexpected help in her efforts to secure an ergonomic program during a recent training by an outside ergonomist. One representative from each department was to attend, and that person would train other workers in his department.
"The person from finance [department] had a last-minute emergency, and a very reluctant controller attended," she said. "By the end of the training, I believe he understood the need for our budget increase."
Despite the many demands on her time, Mercado nonetheless sees these human issues as an important part of her job duties. "How much better is it to know that someone actually cares about their well-being?" she said.
By Nancy Grover
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October 14, 2013
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