Managing Safety Training During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Managing Safety Training During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic

In the best of times, industrial workplaces can get sidelined by weather events that impact delivery and employee schedules, new regulatory requirements that change business practices or on-the-job accidents, injuries and illness.

Now, another unexpected influence is forcing immediate changes with enormous impacts—the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. Wary buyers pull back in unsettled economies, work environments morph due to social distancing requirements, shipping and transportation is disrupted and staffing is in flux daily.

Given all of these competing elements, it’s easy to take an “it-won’t-happen-here” mentality, postpone all but non-essential training, and hope for the best. However, on-the-job accidents, injuries and illness fatalities bring human tragedy to your corporate family. Furthermore, sick or injured employees can mean a loss of workforce, missed deadlines and an unreliable reputation.

According to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 (the most recent year for which the data has been compiled), 37 percent of the “days away from work” cases due to nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses resulted in a visit to a medical facility—and there were nearly 334,000 of these cases.

When it comes to fatal work injuries, there was a two percent increase from 2017 in fatalities, but the shocking difference comes in the increase among minority populations—16 percent among African Americans, the highest total since 1999, and six percent for Hispanic or Latinos. The fatal work injury rate for those over age 65 is still more than double that of workers of all ages in total.

By necessity, there may always be a level of risk in industrial workplaces. What can change is how companies prepare their employees for these risks. Employees who know what to do when there is an injury in the warehouse, when a colleague collapses due to cardiac arrest or when they are on the scene of a transport accident, can make the difference between life and death on the job. The challenge now becomes how to find safe ways to continue training during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Roadmap for Training during Challenging Times

Tim Smith, the CEO of HeartCert CPR Training in Minneapolis, gave serious consideration to shutting down training operations when stay-at-home orders first came out. Then he started getting calls and emails from people who needed a certification as a job requirement. “They want to be in the workforce doing a certain job, and they couldn’t do it without their certification,” he said.

Smith lays out a roadmap for how his organization, and others, are enabling training during this time. Of greatest importance, follow public health guidance. Look at federal, state and local jurisdictions as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Consider ways you can eliminate contact and minimize class sizes. If you typically train in groups of 12, you may have to now train in groups of six in order to follow six feet of social distancing as well as restrictions on sharing equipment. Gloves and masks are mandatory, and skills practice has been modified to comply with social distancing requirements.

Many training organizations send out screening guidelines ahead of time via email, telephone and text. The communications should always include a reminder of the potential signs of the novel coronavirus and instruct students with health concerns to reschedule. As an additional precaution, many organizations are taking temperatures before students enter the facility.

Next, consider which employees need in-person training and which might be able with an online alternative. In fact, this might be something to approach your counterparts in Human Resources and see if they have any “desk” employees who may be interested in taking an online, non-certification course.

There are certification options available that are part of a blended learning curriculum. The American Red Cross, for example, is allowing students to take the online, cognitive portion of a blended learning course and giving them a “provisional certification” good for 90 days after course completion. In this provisional certification course option, the student has three months to take the in-person skills test, during which time the hope is that stay-at-home orders will be lifted.

The next phase in the roadmap is virtual training and testing. The Red Cross, the American Safety & Health Institute and the American Heart Association are all allowing the skills testing to be conducted virtually as long as the instructor can clearly see and verify the student’s psychomotor abilities.

Virtual training presents an opportunity to better align with those who may have scheduling conflicts, such as the person who may not have enough time to get to the training facility after getting off work or who have childcare concerns.

The biggest hurdle is often getting (not to mention returning) the equipment—a manikin with a feedback device that the instructor can monitor as well as an AED training device—to the student.

Tracy Klinkner, owner of CPR Certified Trainer in Missouri and a Red Cross instructor, completed her first virtual class in April. The equipment was dropped off on her student’s front porch, and then she connected with the student via FaceTime to conduct the virtual class. Klinker is finding success with this option with several classes lined up. “Everyone has been so thankful this option was given to them; it’s definitely a win-win,” she said.

Thinking Ahead

While training during this time has been reduced to maintain the overall safety and well-being of employees, and only those who absolutely need it are training, workplaces will eventually open again. Public health guidelines are the starting point, but it’s up to the trainers to find and implement the most effective processes for teaching the material safely.

One training method that seems to be gaining traction in this time of distance learning is blended learning. Introduced about 10 years ago, blended learning programs offer online interactive cognitive education with a follow-up skills test.

In addition to being available anywhere and anytime users have access to a computer, tablet or mobile device, blended learning allows learners to repeatedly test knowledge at their own pace and in a variety of scenarios.

Alternatively, for those who are very familiar with the subject matter, certain Red Cross blended learning courses use adaptive learning, which allows the student to opt out of sections by demonstrating competency.

Forward-looking owners like Smith are already thinking about new approaches to training and how to incorporate methods that have demonstrated efficacy.

“One of our clients is a laboratory group that falls under OSHA requirements,” he said. “It’s not time for them yet, but we’ll be reaching out when certification deadlines near to provide them with options and figure out what will work best.”

It Comes Down to Adaptation

While some organizations and instructors may not be training during this time, a large majority feel that teaching lifesaving skills is essential and that they are making a difference. In fact, some instructors would argue that now, more than ever, people need to know what to do in an emergency and need to know how to save a life.

Red Cross instructor Manny Perez continues to train in the Tampa Bay area. “As strong a health concern that COVID-19 presents, it also opens up opportunities and changes the way we think.”

Perez believes that this pandemic is forcing an opportunistic disruption among training providers, making them re-think their models and consider new ways to interact with students.

The most successful organizations will be those that can shift and adapt their processes during this time, figuring out solutions on how to get—and keep—people trained. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that traditional “sit in a classroom for a day” training is not the only option, and it may not be the best option going forward—even after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

“There are things people can do,” Smith said. “It’s only a matter of time before safety managers say, ‘We can’t put off training forever; we have to consider one of these options.’”

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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