A New Era for Learning and Safety Management

Industry professionals want features that enable them to create safety audits and inspections, surveys, scorecards, and more.

In the past, even companies with strong safety programs tended to perceive their value mostly in terms of compliance and humanitarian concerns. In the worst cases, safety departments were sometimes viewed primarily as cost centers imposed by government regulators. Today, more executives recognize that safety programs impact key areas of organizational performance and treat them as an investment that, properly managed, can deliver value well beyond protecting workers and avoiding compliance fines. As a result, more effort is being made to integrate learning and safety efforts with broader organizational processes and goals in areas such as risk management, corporate governance, and culture. There is also a stronger push, in general, toward implementing robust, proactive safety initiatives.

That's the good news. The bad news? In this difficult economic environment, safety and risk management professionals are being asked to do more than ever before and deal with more complex workforce safety and health challenges -- but they're not getting more staff or larger budgets. In fact, in an EHS Today survey, 23 percent of respondents reported budget decreases for 2009 and another 47 percent said their budgets were stagnant. Even more striking, in the 2009 Excellence in Risk Management survey and report co-authored by Marsh and the Risk and Insurance Management Society, 51 percent of respondents said they were spending less on loss control, yet 62 percent also identified Training/Education as the number one activity to increase risk management capabilities.

Being asked to "do more with less" is nothing new for most safety and risk management professionals. Resourceful by nature and necessity, they consistently find ways to make processes more efficient, learning more effective, and outcomes more positive despite tight budgets. Technology has been an ally at times but also a source of frustration. Too often, they must juggle multiple software solutions to cover critical and closely related responsibilities such as training, safety, and compliance. In the area of training delivery and management, this is further exacerbated by the fact most systems on the market were not designed with safety and risk management professionals in mind.

Having technology that "can" be adapted to their needs may be better than having no technology at all, but the "adapting" reduces the benefits technology should provide and limits what safety and risk management professionals can achieve for their organizations. To use an analogy, a carpenter "can" build a cabinet with a maul and a hacksaw but will build a much better cabinet, and build it faster, if given tools designed specifically for the purpose.

Similarly, safety and risk management professionals will deliver more value, more efficiently, if given software and systems designed to handle their key tasks right out of the box. It's fine to celebrate their ingenuity if they devise a workaround on a system built for other purposes, but do we really want them spending hours on IT workarounds? Of course not. Nor do we want them spending hours on repetitive data entry that could be automated or having their workflow interrupted because they constantly have to flip back and forth between multiple program screens or multiple programs.

Such inefficiency isn't just an inconvenience; it's a bottom-line issue. Most obviously, it means an organization is paying for unnecessary labor. In cases where multiple, overlapping solutions are deployed, or an outdated mainframe is still maintained, there are unnecessary IT costs, as well. But most importantly, inefficient learning and safety management solutions diminish the return on investment (ROI) that safety programs can and should provide. The more time professionals spend wrestling with technology or mired in administrative tasks, the less time they have for such value-producing activities as loss control, risk management, preventing injuries, and promoting employee health -- all of which can boost business performance while reducing costs associated with lost time, worker's comp, and so on.

Learning and safety ROI also depend on effectiveness: the degree to which efforts actually change behaviors and help create a safer, healthier, more profitable workplace. Here, too, technology has extraordinary potential yet too often falls short. On the positive side, the availability of engaging, interactive online courses has been an incredible boon. When done right -- based on proven adult learning methodology and incorporating rich multimedia features -- these courses have consistently improved learning, retention, and outcomes. The "anytime, anywhere" convenience of Web-based training also helps organizations cut training expenses, avoid or reduce work interruptions, and increase training completion rates. It's still preferable or required for some training to take place in a classroom or hands-on setting, but using online training where appropriate gives safety professionals more time and flexibility to interact with employees, strengthen incident prevention programs, contribute to risk management, and engage in other activities that maximize effectiveness.

Unfortunately, technology has been less of a boon in the related area of training delivery and management. Although there are various systems available, almost all were initially designed for academic settings, "soft skills" or niche industry training, or other educational purposes -- not for safety. Safety training is distinct from other training: The approach is different, the objectives and management needs are different, the risks are often higher, and deeper learning is required to ensure success. Safety professionals need a system that promotes and measures that deeper learning. Conversely, using a system that mixes safety training with other enterprise learning needs can dilute critical safety messages and undermine the overall safety culture.

It is also preferable to keep safety and compliance training and documentation separate from non-compliance training. After all, a high percentage of compliance-based safety training involves protecting human lives. To have that information simply sharing space on a larger system is to risk diminished visibility. And, as we all know, it can be catastrophic not to see every detail, every risk, associated with safety training.

Beyond visibility, there is again the matter of effectiveness. Compliance-based training demands a system that supports a proactive "push" approach that puts a premium on accountability, but most learning management systems on the market were designed for situations where a less stringent (and less effective) "pull" approach is acceptable. Also, few systems enable safety professionals to manage a blended training curriculum from one solution. Combining online and classroom compliance training is an industry best practice, but clearly it is more time consuming and less effective if you can't schedule, track, and report on everything from one database and system. Bottom line: A dedicated, compliance-focused learning and safety management system is the best way to ensure consistency, visibility, accountability, and, ultimately, results.

The fact that many safety and risk management professionals are still expected to "make do" with solutions not designed for their needs is perhaps a vestige of older, more narrow definitions of their role. This should change with the growing evidence of their impact on business performance, such as a 17-year study by Foster Wheeler, a leading United Kingdom construction firm, that found a 63 percent correlation between safety and productivity (see "Debunking the Myth that Safety Doesn't Make Money," Safetyxchange.org, Nov. 3, 2009, http://www.safetyxchange.org/financing-safety/debunking-the-myth-that-safety-doesnt-make-money). Such studies, on top of pure experiential evidence, show that more robust and disciplined safety programs not only reduce the cost of accidents and illnesses, but also improve employee morale and retention, help companies attract the best employees, and boost the success of related efforts such as risk management. But to fully realize these benefits, organizations must invest in technology designed to help safety and risk management professionals ensure the visibility of safety programs, strengthen the safety culture, and expand employee appreciation of safety and health programs and their impact.

A New Era of Learning and Safety Management Technology
So more executives see learning and safety as an investment. Appropriate technology is a key to getting value from that investment. But there is a scarcity of such technology on the market. That presents a compelling case for developing it. But how should solution providers go about it? How do we build solutions that will better serve the needs of safety and risk management professionals and help them deliver greater value to their organizations?

First and foremost, we should include those professionals in every stage of development. We should understand their work environments and responsibilities, the demands they face from both internal and regulatory audiences, and the best practices in their field. We should ask them what the shortcomings of existing solutions are, which tools and features would be most valuable, where technology can help streamline workflow, and so on. For a learning and safety management system to deliver value, for example, it needs to have qualities such as these:

  • Simplify and centralize. For maximum efficiency, safety professionals need a system that integrates critical and closely related areas such as safety, training, and compliance. It must do more than help you assign and track training; it should give you "all the tools you need" in one place. That includes enabling you to manage all aspects of a blended training curriculum from a single solution. It must also include powerful employee management features that are flexible enough to adapt to your hierarchy.
  • More tools to streamline more tasks. Safety professionals don't want a lot of unnecessary gadgets cluttering up the user interface, but they do want more time-saving tools in key areas, such as creating and delivering training materials, assigning and tracking training, and scheduling and distributing reports. Automation options and drag-and-drop functionality should be employed where possible, and program architecture should match natural workflow needs to avoid wasting time switching between multiple screens. Robust reporting tools are absolutely essential.
  • Safety management features. Learning and safety are inseparable, but existing learning management systems offer no safety management features. Industry professionals are looking for features that will enable them to create safety audits and inspections to monitor compliance, surveys to identify perception gaps and drive continuous improvement, scorecards to monitor leading safety indicators, workplace polls to help assess potential risks, and more.
  • Learning that drives outcomes. It's not enough to just deliver and track training. Safety professionals need tools to ensure that learning occurs, to promote accountability and visibility, and to quickly and effectively communicate safety and health messages throughout the organization. They're also looking for innovative uses of technology that can enhance learning, such as "flash incident reports" that allow them to document an incident right after it occurs and turn it into a powerful learning moment that can prevent the incident from occurring again.
  • Connectivity. It saves time and improves information-sharing if solutions used for learning and safety have seamless connectivity with HRIS and other internal systems. This also enables the organization to integrate safety efforts with performance management initiatives.
  • Fully hosted, supported, Web-based solution. Safety professionals and their organizations want the cost savings, freedom from dependence on internal IT resources, 24/7 convenience, and other benefits that come with Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions.
  • Expandability. Safety professionals' needs are constantly changing. To be valuable in the long term, a system must evolve and expand to keep up with their challenges.
  • Provider expertise and support. The value of a system for safety professionals depends, in part, on the provider behind the system. Safety professionals need a partner that understands their challenges and can provide expertise and support that goes beyond technology.

Ultimately, more systems with these qualities will be developed if the market responds to them. And it will because safety and risk management professionals are not responsible just for compliance and keeping employees safe, healthy, and on the job. They are increasingly seen as key drivers of operational excellence. When you improve safety training efficiency and reduce injuries, you also reduce costs and boost profitability. Better safety performance also can help a company gain more business and increase market share, improve its reputation in the marketplace and community, and ultimately become an employer of choice. In today's economy or any economy, there is a very strong case for investing in the work of safety and risk management professionals and giving them the technology they need to deliver maximum value.

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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