The Folly of Safety Training
Prior to identifying a problem as one that can be fixed with training, consider asking, "Is training really the answer?"
Companies and leaders alike are often quick
to point to training deficiencies or lack of
an established behavioral pattern (habit) as
the root cause of accidents. Training seems
to become the easy solution; or, worse, it is viewed as
some sort of magic potion. Safety training can certainly
be an answer, but is it the right answer? The following
is the story of one organization's quest to identify
the influence on risks and answer the age-old question:
Will more training fix the problem?
Five years ago, the construction division of a large
research and development organization conducted
an analysis of its accidents. As a group, they were responsible
for demolishing and establishing new testing
facilities. They learned that during the past four years
of this type of activity, 34 percent of all incidents with
injury were related to lifting. To the division leaders,
this seemed like a problem that was easy to fix. Thus,
the "Save a Back — LiftSafe Campaign" was born.
Within months, the amazing feat of training all 900
employees on proper lifting techniques had occurred.
Subsequently, posters were hung and the incentive and
reward program was realigned to focus on safe lifting
practices. The final element was to utilize the communication
channel of toolbox talks, with the purpose of
reinforcing the training and reminding people of the
importance of lifting safely.
Enter a New Safety Manager
Toward the end of the year, the leadership decided to
employ a new safety manager. Even though he lacked
experience in a construction environment, Lloyd had
a past history of phenomenal success. One of Lloyd's
first tasks was to conduct another incident review to
determine the impact and return on investment the
lifting campaign (authored by his predecessor) provided.
To Lloyd and the division manager's astonishment,
the findings were dismal. Upon review of all incidents
with injury, lifting injuries accounted for 31 percent.
After Lloyd briefed the executives, he was encouraged
to increase the frequency of training for all employees
and retrain the injured individuals on lifting techniques
because, as one executive put it, "They obviously
just aren't getting it." Realizing he was new to the
organization, convincing them of a different approach
wouldn't be easy. With the slightest bit of trepidation
in his voice, he asked for permission to try something
In Lloyd's previous position, he had received some
training on identifying influences in safety events
and became familiar with tactics to observe common
practice. This enabled him to significantly and proactively
improve safety. The vital thing he learned was
that he needed to understand why people do what
they do if he were to help them do it safely. Furthermore,
he learned that while he was the safety professional,
often the people that are doing the work could
best spot the risks. It wasn't easy, but he finally accepted
that he didn't always have the best answers.
Understanding Influencers Prior to Action
Lloyd explained to the executives, "If we are to improve
safety, thereby eliminating this category of accidents,
we must first understand why people are not lifting
in the manner in which they were trained. We know
people have been trained on this safety precaution, but
what does common practice tell us? Is it that people
are making the decision to liftin a different manner?
Have they just not developed the habit yet, or is there
a reason why they are not doing it? Is there something
that makes it difficult or impossible to lift safely?"
Scott, the division vice president, spoke up. "Well, Lloyd, what do you think? Which one is it?"
The ever-prepared safety manager had
done his homework. Prior to the meeting,
Lloyd conducted an analysis of the past
year's lifting-related injuries and the four
years prior. The incident investigation tactics
utilized provided excellent data on the
injuries. However, none were as insightful
as he needed. What was interesting is that
he found one specific precaution that would
have affected 93 percent of all lifting-related
injuries: Getting Help with Heavy or Awkward
Lifts. Lloyd had never worked with
this precaution, but had seen it used in other
sites employing similar tactics.
Lloyd explained this finding to the executives.
There were a few more questions,
and Lloyd was able to address them by reading
through some of the incident reports.
He said if the injured party would have or
could have gotten help with the lift, the
event either might not have happened or
the resulting severity might have been decreased.
Two of the executives still favored
more training. However, there was a group
consensus to support Lloyd's proposal to
put a team together to study common practice
and determine whether it were possible
for people to "Get Help with Heavy or Awkward
Lifts" and identify what might influence
otherwise. The executives asked to
reconvene in 90 days to discuss the findings.
Lloyd set out with a motivated purpose. The
next day, he quickly gathered the hourly
safety committee and explained his idea.
To create ownership in the mission, he took
them through the same review he conducted;
consequently, the committee came up
with similar findings. Over the next couple
of days, Lloyd trained the committee, and
a few additional individuals the committee
felt would be a great asset in tactics, to
observe common practice for the ability
to take the precaution "Getting Help with
Heavy or Awkward Lifts." He also trained
them in interpersonal skills and how to
maintain respect in conversations. He felt
this was critical to ensure people knew
these conversations weren't to find fault, just
to understand whether there were barriers
to this precaution taking place. Lloyd then
briefed the rest of the managers and supervisors
and held communication sessions for
all employees to explain the 90-day project.
By Friday afternoon, the committee was
ready to begin.
A total of 18 employees had volunteered
to observe common practice in five-minute
intervals for instances of workers taking the
precaution. If fellow employees were observed
taking the precaution, they pointed
out specifically what was being done safely
and reinforced the importance of taking
the precaution. When an employee was observed
not taking the precaution, they had
a conversation to determine whether there
was a safer way to perform the task or an
obstacle or barrier made it difficult or impossible
to do so. They gathered this insight
on a form the committee had created.
At the end of the first month, they already
had obtained some interesting findings.
The summary of these findings was
shared with Lloyd, who almost fell off his
chair when he was told of the influencer
that was identified during these conversations.
Lloyd asked the committee to continue
gathering this data for 45 more days. At
the conclusion, he would like to meet with
the committee to confirm the magnitude of
Unveiling the Findings
The 90-day review came quicker than Lloyd
had anticipated. Yet he was, again, ready for
the meeting. The trepidation visible in his
comments three months ago was absent; instead,
a confident safety manager stood before
his leaders. He explained the process he
had put together. He then began to review
the findings by outlining a common finding
obtained during an observation.
When an HVAC technician was putting
up new ductwork, the tech was quite
capable of handling many of the activities
unassisted. When the tech would get to a
part that was heavy or awkward to lift, he
would ask a nearby electrician for help with
the lift. The response typically would be,
"Can I put this on your work order? I can't
take time off mine." Lloyd further explained
that out of 400 people observed during 90
days, nine out of 10 people who were observed
not taking the precaution reported a
perception that the work order system that
had them document their minutes for each
task was the reason they were not helping
others. That prompted Doug, the division
engineering manager, to say, "That is not the
purpose of the work order system!"
Lloyd responded to Doug, "I know that,
and I'm sure all of us know that. Do the
employees still know that?" Superintendent
Chip replied, "Well, we told them when we
made the change that we want them to carry
out their tasks as they normally do, because
we wanted accurate times." Lloyd explained
that, after reviewing common practice data
and talking with the people gathering this
insight, "Unfortunately, most of the employees
have either forgotten or were not
here when the intent was conveyed."
Scott shook his head. "So, what you are
saying," he said, "is the way the employees
perceive it, we have a work order system
that is giving the impression that we are
managing them by the minute?" Doug added,
"Even if employees are trained in safe
lifting practices, it seems the fear of a negative
consequence for unacceptable time
on the work order is a stronger negative
influence than the positive consequence of
precaution-taking and not getting injured."
Lloyd replied, "Unfortunately, it appears
this influence is what is leading to a lot of
our lifting-related injuries."
Neutralizing the Influence on Risk
During the next few weeks, Doug worked
aggressively to again modify the work order
system by reducing the requirement to
identify the exact minutes required for each
task. The executives tirelessly explained in
all-employee meetings how this misperception
was affecting safety. Moreover, Scott
personally stood before the employees and
communicated how sorry they were for
allowing this misperception to be created
and to become so widespread. During the
following couple of years, lifting-related
injuries decreased, ranging only between 4
percent and 9 percent of total incidents with
injury. As a result, the division celebrated a
significant reduction in accident rates and
Prior to identifying a problem as one that
can be fixed with training, consider taking
advice from Lloyd and ask, "Is training really
the answer?" If we train people, how will
this training affect common practice? And
how does common practice affect safety? It
is amazing how a simple question like, "Out
of curiosity, why do you do it that way?" provides
profound insight into understanding
why people do what they do.
This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
Shawn M. Galloway is the president of ProAct Safety and co-author of several best-selling books. As a consultant, advisor, and keynote speaker, he has helped hundreds of organizations within every major industry to improve safety strategy, culture, leadership, and engagement. He is also the host of the acclaimed weekly podcast series Safety Culture Excellence®. He can be reached at 936-273-8700 or info@ProActSafety.com.