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They’ve Been Trained, So Why Do Employees Still Not Do (fill in the blank)?


Joe, a warehouse employee, has reported a back injury.  He reports that while pulling a cart from the delivery truck onto the dock that he felt a sharp pain in his back.  You do an injury investigation and find out that Joe didn’t follow procedures.  He pulled the cart up the “lift valley”, from the truck into the warehouse instead of taking the time to lower the dock lift to meet the height of the truck lift, move the cart onto the dock lift, raise the dock lift back up to dock height and then move the cart into the warehouse.  Furthermore he again went against safety training because he pulled the cart with one arm instead of pushing it with two arms.  You scratch you head knowing that this injury was preventable if only the employee would’ve followed directions!  


The previous example is just one of many.  I’m sure you could come up with many examples of employee injuries or work-arounds that employees create on their own that go against what they’ve been trained to do.  (This assumes that the trainer and the training were good.  The messages were consistent and every employee knew and understood what was expected of them following the training.)  Why is it that employees (humans) don’t do what they’ve been trained do?  Why don’t they do what they know is the “right way”?  I’ve done a series of blogs in which I discussed four of the most common reasons that I see for this human behavior.   The four reasons are: 

1.      Habits:  behavior that we repeat and repeat without even thinking

2.      Perceptions:  act or faculty of apprehending by means of the senses or of the mind; cognition; understanding

3.      Obstacles:  things that oppose, stand in the way of, or hold up progress

4.      Barriers:  something material or immaterial that obstructs or impedes 

 (I invite you to read my recent blogs that discuss each one of those in more detail)


So how does one know if one or more the four reasons are factors in how employees (humans) behave?  Let’s look at how they might respond to questioning on why they did (or didn’t do) what they did: 


·        Habits:  You will hear people say:  “I’ve always done it this way….”; “That’s always how it’s been done around here” or “I don’t know, I didn’t even think…”

·        Perceptions:  You may hear people say:  “I’ve done it that way a million times and I’ve never been hurt before”, “In my opinion this was a better way to do it” or “What’s wrong with the way I do…?”

·        Obstacles:  “It takes too long to do it that way because…” or “(this would’ve happened) if I did it that way”

·        Barriers:  “There’s no way I can do that because…”; “I can’t because…” or “It’s impossible for me to do that because...”


So in the example I led with let’s take a look at what factors might have caused the employee to not follow procedures.  The first thing was he didn’t bother to adjust the height of the dock lift.  By not doing so he unnecessarily caused the push/pull force to increase to an amount that had a potential for injury.  What would be some of the reasons that Joe may give as to why he didn’t choose to adjust the lift height?

·        Perceptions: “takes more time”; “I’ve always done it this way and never been hurt before”

·        Habits:  “I’ve never bothered to adjust the lift height before—I just didn’t even think about it”

·        Obstacles:  “I’m under time pressure to move carts as fast as possible, I don’t have time to be safe”

·        Barriers:  Probably don’t play a factor in this scenario


The second thing he did was pulled the cart with only one arm.  In training, he’d been taught that it’s always best to push and use to arms.  Of the four reasons, which could be factor into how he chose to move the cart?  In this case you could probably make the case for all 4 reasons.  Barriers could be included if there were certain other variables involved, i.e. carts were too wide and tall to see around or over and there was other traffic to be considered with where the carts were being moved onto the dock.  Then there would be a legitimate barrier to pushing—pulling would be necessary in order to view if other people or products would be in way.


Human factors and ergonomics (HF/E) can and should be utilized to address and hopefully eliminate the effect of these four reasons.  Let’s take a closer look on each one using HF/E.



One very common example of this is training on “safe lifting” or using good body mechanics.  Unfortunately, human nature and habits is to bend over to lift—not bending the knees to lift.  So, what are some things that we can do?  First, we want to design the workspace and work flow so that employees’ habits wouldn’t come into play at all.  In other words the goal would be to engineering out the at risk task/behavior, i.e. take the box of the floor and place it at waist height.  If the problem can be engineered away then other steps must be taken to maximize the usage of new, “good” habits and minimize the chance of employees falling back to using old, “bad” habits.  This takes more than just a single training session.  It requires frequent and repeated reminders.  Note:  The communication shouldn’t be the same every time, otherwise people will soon “tune it out”.  Implementing a peer system to hold each other accountable and/or creating some sort of behavioral metric for employees to strive for would be another way to reinforce the desired new habit. 



People’s perceptions of risk, time and effort to do certain tasks factor into their behavior.  In the case of the warehouse worker, if he felt he didn’t have the extra time built into his shift to raise and lower the lift, then there is no amount of training that will change that.  Likewise, if he feels he’s invincible and that he’ll never get hurt doing it his way.  I’m a firm believer in actually showing, proving to people that their perception isn’t reality.  If lack of time is the perception, then take a stop watch and actually time it both ways—his way and the new way.  Is there a time difference?  If no, case closed.  If yes, then sit down with him and determine if it truly factors into his job?  When employees have the “superman” mentality, i.e. “I will never get hurt”, I find that the best way is to prove/show them that it can and has happened.  If a co-worker has gotten hurt, have them talk about what happened and why in a staff meeting.  Make the possibility for injury as real as possible so it changes their perception. 



In one of my blogs I gave an example of a foundry in which two employees were on opposite sides of a conveyor knocking parts off of the gate.  They were instructed to switch sides every hour.  Instead of walk down a flight of stairs, around some equipment and back up a flight of stairs as directed for safety, they could step on and over the moving conveyor that had very hot parts coming down the line.  The all of the employees who worked in this position stepped on and over the moving conveyor despite being trained otherwise.  Why?  Time.  In order to keep up with the parts coming down the line they didn’t have the time to take the long and safe way around to switch sides without falling a bit behind.  In this case safety and productivity were not in sync with each other.  So how do we solve this?  We do time studies.  What is the length of time it takes to do it the safe way compared to the amount of parts that they would fall behind.  Is it true?  What is the cost/benefit of slowing down the line?  Is there a way to slow it down for once an hour just for the switch over?  One needs to use HF/E and the hierarchy of controls to address obstacles.



In the above example, if it was verified that there wasn’t enough time to make the switch safely without falling seriously behind and the conveyor couldn’t be slowed down then that would definitely be a barrier.  It would be like telling a carpenter to hammer nails in a piece of wood without giving him a hammer.  It’s impossible to do.  In this case, there is definitely a chasm between safety and productivity.  However, with some engineering there could be a way to satisfy both.  Assuming there is enough room on either side of the conveyor and enough clearance above it then a stairway could be built over the conveyor. 


These are just a few examples of addressing habits, perceptions, obstacles and barriers through HF/E.   The root cause(s) must be determined with every situation.  It’s easy to blame the employee for doing or not doing things.  However, with careful and thoughtful HF/E consideration to work space, work flow and task design and process the occurrences of the four common reasons for why employees don’t do what their trained to do will be addressed and kept to a minimize.