Nst Industry Week 1540x800 Aug 2020

Health Officer Training Program A Model For Empowering Employees

Sept. 2, 2020

Earlier this spring, with its economic restart from the COVID-19 pandemic on the near horizon, the state of Vermont turned to the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center (VMEC) to help implement a new health officer requirement. The state set out to enhance health and safety standards with a stipulation that every business must designate an on-site health officer for every shift.

VMEC saw this as an opportunity not only to bring important safety improvements to manufacturers’ most precious assets — their skilled workers — but also to help manufacturers empower workers and thereby make their organizations more resilient. The training program VMEC designed provided manufacturing personnel with tools and mechanisms to become better problem solvers.

Training Goal Is to Build Resiliency in Companies

As envisioned by the state of Vermont, the health officer would be an employee with the authority to stop or modify activities to ensure work conforms to the mandatory health and safety requirements. But the health officer did not have to be a dedicated safety position or require certification — they could be from among the regularly scheduled employees.

VMEC worked with the state OSHA requirements to quickly develop a five-week Health Officer Training program (HOT) specifically for small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) to ensure adequate training and implementation of the restart’s safe work guidance. The HOT program was designed with five two-hour online classes and three virtual small-group coaching sessions. 

The idea was not just to train people on safety guidance but also to help build resilience within these companies. The VMEC staff looked at many scenarios and considerations and came up with three areas of focus for the training:

  1. Process improvement – How to ensure proper social distancing when sharing tools or how to disinfect a workstation.

  2. Training – How to implement change in an organization, such as a “train the trainer” approach to improve knowledge, adoption and communication throughout the organization.

  3. Job relations – How to deal with the people-related issues that arise as a result of the changes, and more importantly, avoid problems in the first place.

Training Provides Processes, Mechanisms for Problem Solving

Participants in the HOT five-week sessions came from a cross section of industries, a variety of job titles and ages. Many of the participants never had training on how to break down a problem, get to the root cause of the problem and then apply mechanisms to solve the problem. 

Participants were provided templates for each of the three areas that establish routines to practice skills and build new habits. The training included methods for breaking down a health-related task — such as how to put on your PPE, how to screen employees and how to disinfect a workstation. They also were given checklists to measure how well the company was doing and materials to audit their future efforts in order to sustain the initiative. The idea was to empower the participants with a process and a mechanism. 

Small-Group Coaching Sessions Put Focus on Helping People

While the formal two-hour online classes provided informative and detailed training, participants shared that the coaching sessions were the most impactful portion of the training. These small-group coaching sessions — with three to four students and an advisor — were where everything came together. 

Participants shared how difficult it was to ensure everyone was trained and screened the same way, and they shared concerns about how to sustain the disciplined approach as COVID-19 cases flattened. The small-group coaching sessions reinforced the importance of “people relations” and difficult conversations. People also appreciated the opportunity to talk with other SMMs and know that they did not have to figure all of this out on their own. 

Trainers reinforced the importance of the multiplier effect with the “train the trainer” approach in order to effectively pass information to as many people as possible in the organization. 

Training Program Proves to Have Many Indirect Benefits

The small-group coaching is another aspect for companies to consider implementing in their own training and management practices. Small-group coaching helps with alignment issues throughout an organization while providing more direct lines of communication from front-line staff to management. Other indirect benefits of the HOT program include:

  • Methodology that it is not limited to health and safety issues. A manufacturer could apply the same thinking when it comes to adopting new technology or a new process or for problem solving in general. It provided more tools in the continuous process improvement toolbox.

  • Exposing more manufacturing personnel to workforce training principles and an organizational mindset. Employees of all levels have been empowered to think and act with the health of their co-workers in mind.

VMEC also has set up a Manufacturing Exchange website, MXVT.org, for SMMs, state partners and others to host materials for training and to share information on COVID-19-related topics and rebuild supply chains. It is another community-building opportunity for the state’s manufacturers.

Author Bio

Phil Chadderdon is a Professional Manufacturing and Business Growth Advisor with the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center (VMEC), part of the MEP National NetworkTM. He focuses on Lean transformation implementation, ISO certification and business development systems. Phil has worked in manufacturing for 30 years in the papermaking, nonwovens, electrical insulation, electronics and metal fabrication industries, including positions as a Technical Director and Plant Manager.

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