Provide training in small "chunks" shortly before the time it

Adult Learning Principles for Safety Training

Your employees bring a lifetime of experiences to every training session. Sometimes they’ll know more than you do about specific hazards and safety conditions in their current jobs.

When you design safety training materials for the workplace, you're designing training materials for adults. Most of us are familiar with learning as a result of our own childhood educations, but adults aren't like children, and they learn differently than children do.

To design safety training that is effective for an adult audience, there are several key concepts to keep in mind. Adult learners1:

  • Are self-directed
  • Bring a lifetime of knowledge and experience to training
  • Are goal-oriented
  • Want training to be relevant and task-oriented
  • Learn when they are motivated to learn
  • Like to be and feel respected

So how can you design safety training that uses these principles and gives the learning and safety results you want? Let's look at each in more detail.

Adult Learners Are Self-Directed
Adult learners like to be in control of their training or at least play a role in it. You'll get better results if you include your employees in decisions about the topics you cover, the time of year you cover them, and how training is conducted.

What does this mean in a safety training context? Probably you already do this when it comes to safety—getting your employees' knowledge and opinions and getting them involved in the process. It works the same way with your safety training program. Let employees play a role in deciding what's covered in safety training, when the training is to be completed, and the type of training to use. Also, let them be active participants in the training, even creating training materials and leading sessions when possible.

How to design your safety training accordingly:

  • Ask employees to help develop the list of topics for which you'll create safety training. Get their input on job-specific hazards and safety issues.
  • Ask for their input during the development or purchase of training materials.
  • Find out which type of safety training materials they prefer, or which blend.
  • Get their input about the best times of the year to complete safety training.
  • Create instructor-led training sessions that emphasize discussions, collaborations, and active learning exercises. Avoid lecturing.
  • Let employees lead training sessions when possible.
  • Create training activities in multiple "equivalent" formats and let employees complete the one they most prefer.

Adult Learners Have Life Experiences
Your employees bring a lifetime of experiences to every safety training session. In some cases, they'll know more than you do about specific hazards and safety conditions in their current jobs. And they also bring experiences from past jobs and their home and personal lives. Training that is well designed seeks out, acknowledges, and anticipates these experiences.

What does this mean in a safety training context? Welcome your employees' perspectives, input, and knowledge about safety. Address their concerns, fears, and beliefs and create safety training materials or sessions that relate to their experiences, anticipate and address those experiences, and actively seek to draw out and include those experiences.

How to design your safety training accordingly:

  • Get their input on hazards, potential controls, incidents, and near misses at the workplace.
  • Get their input when training materials are being developed. Ask which topics should be included and which formats are preferred.
  • Incorporate the experience of your employees into your safety training program.
  • During training, ask employees for their own opinions and experiences.
  • Connect the training materials to their past experiences. Better yet, ask them to.
  • When introducing new concepts and ideas, use similes, metaphors, analogies, and comparisons. Relate the new knowledge to things they already know.
  • Be receptive to the opinions of all employees.
  • Be prepared to address people whose opinions are different than the training and may in fact be correct.
  • Be prepared to respectfully address people whose opinions based on past experience are mistaken.
  • Provide ways for employees to offer feedback on their training so you can improve it.

Adult Learners Are Goal-oriented
Adults value training if they think it will help them reach a goal. If you make the goal of training clear, if they value that goal, and if they see how the training will help them reach that goal, you'll get their buy-in.

What does this mean in a safety training context? Don't lecture abstractly about safety. Instead, make sure they realize that safety is about things they care about—their hands, their eyes, their ability to earn a paycheck, their ability to support themselves and their families, and their lives.

How to design your safety training accordingly:

  • Provide training that leads to a clear, desired safety goal.
  • Include learning objectives that clearly state how the training will help them reach a valued safety goal.
  • Explain during training how the training will help lead to the desired goal; help your employees see "what's in it for them."
  • Focus on training in which they "do" something instead of simply getting to "know" something.
  • Provide safety training for tasks the workers actually perform (or will perform soon).

Adult Learners Want Relevant and Task-oriented Training
Adult learners want their training to be relevant to their daily lives and to be focused on completing specific tasks. In addition, they want to be able to put what they learned into use shortly after learning it.

What does this mean in a safety training context? Tailor safety training so it’s relevant and clearly related to job tasks the employee performs. Avoid training that is too general, comprehensive, or theoretical.

How to design your safety training accordingly:

  • Create training programs that focus exclusively on the material the employee needs to know; get rid of additional material.
  • Explain how training is directly related to an employee's job task.
  • Don’t teach employees about safety regulations; teach them to be safe while performing their jobs.
  • When possible, avoid "one-size-fits-all" training assignments delivered to everyone.
  • Create learning activities that are task-based or that emphasize problem solving.
  • Provide training that the learner can immediately transfer to completing a task or solving a problem in his or her work.
  • Allow employees to "test out" of safety training if they already know the material (when possible).

Adult Learners Learn When They Are Motivated to Learn
Adults learn when they want to learn and see the value in learning something. If your learners are motivated and engaged, you'll see positive results. If not, the battle’s lost before you've begun.

What does this mean in a safety training context? Admittedly, to some degree your options are limited here. OSHA, MSHA, and similar regulatory agencies do make specific requirements about when training has to be completed. But there are things you can do to facilitate this. By consulting with your employees, you can create a training schedule that best fits their needs.

How to design your safety training accordingly:

  • Work with your employees to determine the best time of the year to complete annual compliance-based safety training.
  • Get their input about the best day and time for the weekly safety meeting.
  • Incorporate online training that provides employees more options about when they complete training.
  • Provide training in small "chunks" shortly before the time it's needed on the job; avoid providing a large amount of training with the expectation that workers will keep it all in mind until sometime in the distant future.
  • Provide training in various different formats to keep the workers engaged.
  • Avoid using the same safety training materials year after year.
  • Always make sure employees see why training is relevant and necessary.

Adult Learners Like to Be and Feel Respected
Adult learners are adults. They want to be treated with respect and feel respected during training. They don't want to feel insulted or be addressed in a condescending manner. Seems logical enough, no?

What does this mean in a safety training context? Following the guidelines we've mentioned earlier will go a long way toward satisfying this one. Seek out and then incorporate your employees' advice on safety issues in their work areas. Consult with them about safety training. Ask them to participate in training development and design. Have them participate in safety trainings and even lead discussions when possible. Make them feel like a partner in safety and safety training.

How to design your safety training accordingly:

  • Always be polite and respectful to employees.
  • During training, ensure that a supportive, respectful atmosphere is always maintained.
  • Don't assume you know everything and they know nothing; welcome all opinions.
  • Create training that's focused on the needs of the learner.

It's critical to create safety training materials that are employee-centered, but it is very easy to forget this and create training that neglects the needs of your employees.

Two simple things you can do to make your safety training program more employee-centered are to (a) remember that your employees are adults and (b) make sure your training materials make use of the adult learning principles we just covered. If you do this, you'll see positive results in your safety training program and where it matters the most: in safety at your workplace.

1. The adult learning principles discussed are drawn from the original work of Malcolm Knowles. His learning principles are sometimes known as "andragogy," from the Greek words for "man" and "leading." See Knowles, Malcolm; Holton, E. F., III; Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier. ISBN 0750678372. LCCN 2004024356.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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