UPS gets injuries close to zero with mentoring

New hires at higher risk

If you were a delivery truck driver and wanted to avoid a back injury, would you want to be given a list of safety practices by a supervisor? Or would you rather have another driver who has been on the job for ten years injury-free demonstrate how he lifts heavy boxes?

A unique mentoring program rolled out in 2009 by UPS involves new employees being shadowed by experienced ones. The program has dramatically reduced injury rates among new employees, who are at higher risk of injury.

Through their analysis of injuries, UPS health and safety managers determined that the disproportionate number of injuries to new employees is due to a number of factors, all of which mentoring can impact.

"Showing someone the ropes is often the missing step in a thorough training regimen," says Steve Vaughn, UPS's comprehensive health and safety manager. "Having a seasoned vet explaining, demonstrating, and really just putting their arm around a new hire, is what makes the difference."

In UPS's Carolina district, injuries to new hires dropped 68% between 2009 and 2010 after the mentoring program was established. Carolina drivers were the first in the country to adopt the program, and injury rates declined significantly after the initiative had time to take hold.

The mentors are members of UPS' Comprehensive Health and Safety Process committee. "These are the non-management folks. We have loaders mentoring loaders and sorters mentoring sorters," says Vaughn. "If another hourly person tells a driver something, he may be more accepting of it than if one of the managers comes up and tells him the very same thing."

The mentors are trained, observed, and given feedback before they work with new hires. Then, a six-week training process is used by the mentors, covering a different injury prevention topic each week.

For example, the second week gives employees eight stretches "that we feel will eliminate them from getting hurt," says Vaughn. Mentors also show drivers how to avoid slips and falls (they're told to walk briskly and avoid running) and unloaders how to use a load stand with the proper setup.

"The average trailer has about 1200 packages in it, and an unloader might unload three of those a day," says Vaughn. "The mentor observes them and gives feedback on the positive things they did, and also how they put themselves at risk for injury."

Mentors love roles

UPS had good success with a program connecting employees with wellness champions to improve their health. Now, the same concept is being used for mentoring. "Mentor champions make sure that the mentors are following up with the employees," says Vaughn.

To be sure that the mentor is covering everything that's needed in the employee's first 30 days, this is included in the company's comprehensive safety audits. During the audit, a manager might be asked to list the last ten people hired, and provide their mentoring packets. Next, the auditor asks employees what they learned from the mentors.

While managers can make decisions about process changes, says Vaughn, teaching employees to avoid injury is better done by peers. "The people who really know how to eliminate injuries and crashes are the people doing it every day," he says. "Who is the best person to show a UPS worker how not to get hurt unloading packages? Another unloader."

The new employees appreciate the help, and mentors enjoy their roles. "This is an opportunity for somebody to coach and guide a new employee, and show that employee how not to get hurt," says Vaughn. "Reinforcing this peer to peer, with non-management people, is the key element."