Mining the Value of Computer-Based Training

21st-century regulations and a 21st-century workforce demand a blended approach.

U.S. mining deaths in 2010 more than doubled the total from 2009. Of course, even in the best years, the reality remains that the mining industry faces more persistent dangers and more severe risks than many other industries.

That reality elicits varying responses. In a Jan. 18, 2011, posted at ohsonline.com, Joseph A. Main of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) asserted that "mining deaths are preventable, and actions must be undertaken to prevent them," then vowed that "MSHA will vigorously enforce the Mine Act, and look for ways to improve our policies and regulations to prevent these unnecessary deaths." Conversely, discussing mining accidents at the National Press Club after Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch tragedy, former CEO Don Blankenship said that "oftentimes they are unavoidable" and "the physics of natural law and God trump whatever man tries to do."

Given the complex environments in which miners work, it is understandable that Blankenship and others disagree that all deaths are preventable. It is also understandable that some would argue that U.S. safety regulations give a competitive advantage to companies operating in less-regulated countries. But those views shouldn't obscure this reality for businesses trying to balance worker safety and profitability: 21st-century technology, new best practices, and easier access to better information do make it possible to prevent more accidents than ever before. These advances are also turning the "expense" of safety and health into an investment that can pay off in reduced incident and injury costs, lower compliance-related expenses, improved productivity and efficiency, stronger brand value and reputation, and other bottom-line benefits.

The Challenges of a Changing Workforce
Numerous studies address the challenges of an easily observed workplace trend: an aging workforce. That trend has an especially strong impact on the mining industry. As a NIOSH report titled "The Evolving Mining Workforce" points out, the many workers hired during the boom years of the '70s are retired or approaching retirement, but because market forces limited hiring in the '80s and '90s, there are few experienced miners to take their places. This presents four challenges: (1) the experience void left by large numbers of retirees; (2) generational differences in learning styles; (3) the need for technology and communication tools suited to younger workers; and (4) rising health costs related to an aging workforce.

The Experience Void
A 2006 Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission report, "Improving Mine Safety Technology and Training: Establishing U.S. Global Leadership," sums it up best: "A significant percentage of the industry's workforce is over 50 years of age.... Increased emphasis must be placed on passing the knowledge of retiring exemplary workers to succeeding generations of miners as well, not only in these critical areas but in others like hazard awareness and control."

Generational Differences in Learning Styles
Younger workers have different learning styles and expectations than previous generations. For example, a 2008 NIOSH article titled "Working in the Classroom — A Vision of Miner Training in the 21st Century" notes younger workers' ability to multitask and take in large quantities of information but also acknowledges their impatience with past approaches where "classroom training was largely a one-way transfer of knowledge through instructor lectures."

"The Evolving Mining Workforce" article adds that young workers also value training more, citing a Bridgegate LLC survey that found that "when it comes to staying on the job, workers under the age of 24 are twice as likely to be influenced by the amount of training provided as money. These young people have concluded that ... [t]heir only sense of security is what they know how to do."

Aging Can Get Expensive
The amount of lost time and medical costs related to injuries and illnesses can rise significantly with age. For example, the National Council on Compensation Insurance estimates claim costs for workers in the 55-64 age group are 60 percent higher for indemnity claims and 40 percent higher for medical claims than for workers in the 20-24 age group. Similarly, a 2005 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics chart of median days away from work due to injury shows workers 35 years of age and younger top out at six days away from work annually. By the 45-54 age group, the median jumps to 10 days away from work, and it rises again in the next two age groups.

Leveraging Today's Technology to Meet Today's Challenges
There is a powerful sense of tradition at most mining companies — and a straightforward, no-frills culture. Those are real strengths, unless they prevent companies from adapting to today's business challenges. Training, for example, can be incredibly effective in overcoming all of the challenges discussed in this article, but it requires a new approach and the power of new technology.

Too many in the mining industry hold the outdated view that safety training is a "cost center" whose primary purpose is to avoid compliance penalties. Safety training starts adding bottom-line value when companies go “beyond compliance” and use it as part of a proactive effort to identify and correct deficiencies before they become incidents.

If you feel that your staff is already spread too thin to be able to implement new safety training strategies, you're not alone. Many companies are still handling every aspect of training manually, including mountains of paperwork from compliance recordkeeping and reporting. Investments in today's software-based solutions can make a big difference by helping you manage these tasks (and many others) in a fraction of the time it would take using clipboards and spreadsheets.

To be clear, there are areas where hands-on, classroom, and one-on-one training can never be replaced. But a blended approach that uses computer-based training where it fits will free up more time and resources for traditional methods while also offering straightforward benefits -– training that is accessible, engaging, updatable, self-paced, trackable, economical, and consistent.

Leveraging the advantages of today's technology also makes sense because of the rising employee acceptance of more sophisticated training tools. "Working in the Classroom" points out that "widespread use of video games has led [younger] trainees to not only accept but expect high-tech professional quality computer-based training." It cites a study where 99 percent of 135 new miners "enjoyed" a computer-based training session, and 92 percent said they "would like future training to include computer-based sessions." Even among older workers, resistance is becoming rare due to ease of use.

Case Study: Blended Approach to MSHA Part 46
Short of a live demonstration, it may be easiest to understand the value of computer-based training by looking at a specific application. MSHA Part 46 regulations provide a good case study.

Title 30 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 46 defines health and safety training requirements for non-metal surface mines, as well as contractors providing on-site services at surface mines. The first challenge is getting your head around its 12 subparts and completing your training and documentation well enough to make it past an inspection. MSHA has some materials on its website and staff are available to answer questions, but the value of those resources depends on the time you can spend sifting through information and calling for help.

Luckily, there is software designed specifically for Part 46. In other words, the software provider has done the work of untangling the regulations and providing a significant amount of the training you need, which means you can focus on how to administer the training and on aspects of Part 46 that must be handled in person, including task training, a mine tour, and instruction on how to recognize and avoid specific hazards present at the mine.

The best Part 46 software helps with all three components of compliance: Training Plan, Training, and Record of Training. Why spend days writing training plans and still worry that some small detail could result in a "gotcha" down the road? Load the appropriate software, and carefully researched and formatted template plans are ready to go. Most of the work is done — you just configure the plan to your needs and fill in your company-specific information.

In terms of training, companies trying to achieve Part 46 compliance with minimum impact on production schedules will appreciate the flexibility to deliver training any time, anywhere there's a computer, as well as the overall cost effectiveness and assurance of quality and consistency that come with computer-based training. Leading providers don't just offer computer-based courses that "can" be used for Part 46; they've created a full curriculum — in some cases, 25 or more courses available in one package that comply with the Part 46 training topic requirements. Such providers go way beyond the basics and typically provide helpful charts explaining which modules meet which requirements.

Even acknowledging such benefits, if Part 46 compliance were limited to just training plans and training, some might look at what they've assembled in the past decade and figure that the most time-intensive work is done, so "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The third component of Part 46 compliance — a Record of Training — highlights why computer-based solutions are becoming a "must have" rather than a "nice to have" in mining.

Few tasks are as time-consuming and vulnerable to human error as compliance recordkeeping and reporting. Part 46 is no exception. You need to prove that you've planned, executed, and documented the training MSHA requires for specific personnel within the minimum time requirements and specified time periods. No matter how well established your company's processes are, if you do all that work manually, it costs you a lot of staff time. This is where top computer-based solutions really shine: Tracking and recordkeeping features in these solutions simplify data entry and automate key processes for not only online courses, but also meetings, classroom sessions, and other training-related events. Using that data, the solution can then crank out MSHA 5000-23 compatible Records of Training and other useful reports with just a couple mouse clicks.

A final thought to consider: MSHA workers may be sincere in wanting to help mining companies help themselves, but at the end of the day they’re not accountable for any company's results. The success of a safety training solution provider, on the other hand, depends on its customers' protecting the safety and health of employees, remaining compliant, and optimizing business performance and profitability. If you choose an industry-leading provider that specializes in mining and Part 46 solutions, you'll get more than software. You'll get a committed partner that is highly motivated to provide resources and support.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Authors

Jonathan A. Jacobi, CSP, is Senior EHS Manager at UL PureSafety, a leading health and safety software solutions provider founded in response to a workplace tragedy at a MSHA Part 46 site. He has more than 15 years of EHS leadership experience and has worked for Kimberly Clark, Philip Morris, and Brown and Root. He is a Certified Safety Professional, a Construction Health and Safety Technician (CHST), and an OSHA-authorized outreach trainer for construction and general industry. He holds an M.S. in Occupational Safety and Health with an emphasis in Industrial Hygiene from Murray State University and is active in professional societies, including the American Society of Safety Engineers and the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

Bjorn Ansbro is Business Development Manager with Convergence Training, a division of Capstone Technology dedicated to creating engaging and effective training courses and learning management software. He has nearly 15 years of project management experience in industries ranging from consumer products research and commercial biofuel production to safety and compliance training. His advanced R&D and technical writing background play prominent roles in the development and production of Convergence Training's interactive training products, including its Surface Miner Training videos and software for MSHA Part 46 compliance. He has a B.S. in Marketing from the University of West Florida.

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