Sounds like an odd question,  but there is a good story connected to it.

Several years ago I was leading a team of 250 warehouse associates in the Midwest. The products we were shipping were generally heavy and bulky and I had an increasing number of muscle strains, particularly back injuries. Corporate had pushed down a back safety program a few years earlier and sent a safety guy around once per quarter to remind everyone to lift safely. My observation was that the team wasn’t following the safe lifting training, hence the increase in back injuries.

Corporate pressured me to do more and find a way to reduce the injuries (aka: the Workers Comp expenses and time off).  I reviewed the corporate safe lifting program we had and wondered why the team wasn’t following it.  I gathered a group of employees together and asked them that question.  A lot of blank stares came back and no one said anything except one woman who stated “If that’s what you make us do then we’ll do it”.  Clearly this conversation wasn’t going anywhere productive.

A few days later I was speaking to a senior team member named Hector about a work issue and I remembered he had been part of the group I met with a few days ago but he had not spoken up at that meeting.  So I took the opportunity to ask his opinion. He shifted uncomfortably and looked away until I told him he could say anything he wanted.  So he did and I wasn’t ready for it.  He said the safe lifting program was not being used because no one believed in it.  They didn’t like it because the corporate guys came here, showed them how to lift with their legs (which everyone knows how to do anyway) then left without ever asking their opinion of the program.

So I asked him what his opinion was of the program. He was a little uneasy telling me but eventually said the procedures they were taught for lifting were uncomfortable and unnatural. I was puzzled by this because I thought the corporate guys had researched the best way to lift and that’s what they taught. After a few more questions (and assurances he could speak freely) he said he followed the lifting procedures only when a “boss” was watching, then went back to his old habits of improper lifting because it felt more natural to him.

Then I asked Hector the million-dollar question… “So what would a better lifting program look like?”   It was kind of a rhetorical question since I didn’t expect him to have an answer. But he surprised me by saying “A way to lift that is both safe and feels comfortable.”   I had him talking so I asked if he knew what that would look like. Now I hit a dead end because he didn’t, he just knew that the traditional “Bend with your legs” program felt very odd.  He said he doesn’t lift that way at home so why would he at work?  I had to admit, he had a good point. 

Now I was stuck….  The team doesn’t like the current safe lifting program because it feels odd and it’s not the way they lift at home, but their “more comfortable” way of lifting was bad for their back and causing injuries. I had nothing else to offer at this point and knew that no amount of carrot or stick would change their behavior. So I did what I always do when confronted with a dilemma, I researched and looked for other companies who had similar issues and had already found a solution. 

A few days later I found a program called PowerLift that said it was a new, more natural way to lift. I thought back to what Hector said about wanting something that is both safe and feels comfortable.  In my experience natural = comfortable so maybe this could be something.  It turned out it was.  I found that PowerLift is similar to the traditional “bend with your knees” program that is proven to reduce back injuries but with a different approach. That new approach is what makes it feel comfortable and natural.  I knew that what I was doing wasn’t working (cause the team didn’t like it) so I had to try something new.

So I had the PowerLift team train my team on their safe and natural way to lift. It surprised us because their simple modified technique makes the lift feel easier and not forced like the traditional method. And the load being lifted actually feels a little lighter with this method. It seemed like a success and the team had positive comments at first.  But I knew the real test would be a few days away when the team was on their own. Would they go back to their old method of lifting with their back?

Two days later I was walking through the warehouse and saw Hector lifting a heavy carton by using the PowerLift technique. I stopped and asked him what he thought about the program and what the team was saying.  He said the guys were surprised. They expected PowerLift to be just another corporate program they had to follow, but once they tried it they felt it was easier.  Does that mean they will use it?  He said he noticed most of the team already using the new lifting method.

Surprisingly, weeks later the team was still using the PowerLift technique, and months later when my workers’ comp numbers improved the corporate guys took notice. They now want to roll it out everywhere and they also like the fact that it’s a pretty economical program.

I guess you could call this a success story because I found a way to reduce injuries and didn’t have to “force” people to do something they didn’t like.  They now tell me the PowerLift method is how they lift even at home because it feels easier and more natural.  So in my way of thinking….  

Natural = easier = safer = success.

Thanks to Hector for making me look for and finding a better way to protect my employees.

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