Safety Training: We're Loving It

Just as a good short-order cook retains customers by preparing a satisfying meal, a good safety trainer keeps the audience engaged during the session and willing to attend another.

OH, no—health and safety training again?! In every industry, this is a common response to the announcement of an upcoming session. People absolutely despise safety training because it is the same old, dull, boring, and repetitive material, year after year. From the safety professional’s perspective, the worst part of it is that no one actually gains anything from these tedious meetings: The employees become desensitized, the organization loses production hours, and the safety trainer wastes time preparing and presenting the same old, meaningless topics. In the end, all that remains is a list of names and signatures confirming physical attendance—and the sinking suspicion that no one was mentally present.

That is simply not good enough. OSHA wants the training to be effective: The information must stay with the employees after they leave the training room, and it must be applied on a daily basis.

The Presentation
What can we do to make the training sessions bearable, acceptable, or even enjoyable? The “5P” acronym sums it up precisely: Prior-Preparation- Prevents-Poor-Performance. For a lecture to be effective, its cornerstone must be good preparation. Doing our homework, however, cannot be confined to simply getting the notes and slides ready or memorizing the materials. Preparation also involves designing an impressive introduction that will capture everyone’s attention. This is the time to “kick it up a notch” and get everyone into it. A funny opening statement, an interesting video clip, a slideshow with background music, or something totally unexpected can facilitate the transition and make the lecturer the focal point. In addition, a smile from the instructor will break the ice and relax any participant who may be nervous or intimidated.

Dull and uninspiring introductions will be perceived as only a precursor of what is to follow. Apologetic opening statements, on the other hand, sound weak and pathetic. If the trainer starts by making excuses for the topic, the material, or even his/her competence level, the audience will form an impression that will be difficult to counteract. A dispassionate, monotonous trainer will quickly bore and fatigue the participants, who will soon become uninterested and unresponsive. Conversely, a presenter who is vibrant, energetic, and passionate about the subject is likely to influence people and motivate them to work safely.

The Content
Once the presentation is under way, we have to ensure we are providing the right content to the right people at the right time. The classroom is the opportunity for the safety professional to assume the role of educator, innovator, leader, and catalyst for change. It is not a forum for the instructor to flaunt his/her intelligence or expertise. Instead, it should be the place where information regarding safety is conveyed in a manner consistent and coherent with the needs of the audience. For people who mix chemicals at a factory, misplaced and superfluous technical jargon results only in frustration and resentment. They do not want or need to hear that ammonia is a lacrimator, which is an agent that induces the lacrimar glands—that are located superiortemporally to each ophthalmic cavity and posterior to the upper palpebra—to secrete lacrimar fluid! What they should know can be communicated without unnecessary scientific language: Among other things, exposure to ammonia vapors has the same effect as peeling and chopping onions. Everyone can relate to that.

The majority of our efforts as trainers traditionally focuses on presenting facts, statistics, regulations, and standards. In doing so, we concentrate on the left side of the brain, which favors logic, reasoning, linear thinking, and the sciences. Roger Sperry, the psychobiologist who first ascribed different strengths to the two halves of the brain, would concur that the right hemisphere is not being engaged. This section supports the arts, non-linear thinking, humor, and imagination. Experience has taught me that the trick is to encourage our audience to utilize both logical and creative sides of their brains. Clever techniques, energetic presentations, appropriate humor, and even the occasional ad lib will keep the entire cerebrum active.

As a part of an Industrial Safety course at Central Connecticut State University, I was trying to impress upon my students the importance of production with safety, as opposed to production and safety. Suddenly, it came to me: the Cheeseburger Model. At first they looked at me as if I had just grown hair, but with some explanation and convincing, it began to make sense. Production is the meat, the food that fills the stomach. (In some cases, such as academia, education is the meat.) Safety is the cheese, but cheese alone will not satisfy one’s appetite. However, just as a slice of cheese enhances the taste of a meat patty, safety enhances production. We all know that the cheese comes with the meat; it is not a side order. They are put together in advance to become the one unit we are about to consume: the cheeseburger.

I knew the entire class was paying attention because at that point, my students asked about the significance of the bun. I stopped and thought about it for a moment. Suddenly, I exclaimed, “Management! It holds everything together!” Management supports production and promotes safety. Without the bun, all you have is a sloppy piece of meat with the cheese melting and slipping away! The metaphor I had just come up with was working great, but how could we fit the all-important fixings into the model? After some deliberation, we decided the tasty condiments represent delivery techniques. They make the burger unique and special because, after all, the goal is to “have it your way.” Let’s face it: All buns taste the same; management is generally universal. Meat is meat; production is getting the job done. With safety advancements and new or revised regulations, the type of cheese may change. The burger, however, can still taste great if we top it with the employee’s favorite condiments.

The Instructor
So the only component missing from the model is the chef. This is where we come in: The safety instructor is the short-order cook, the person who arranges all of the ingredients together and adds a personal touch to make a delicious meal. He/she is the person who takes the order by analyzing the organization’s training needs and the audience’s background, experience, and preferences. The safety trainer listens to the customers’ requests and prepares the orders accordingly.

The U.S. Coast Guard uses the phrase “rigid-flexibility” to describe the adaptability of the Incident Command System (ICS), which is now part of the National Incident Management System. It is a brilliant expression that, initially, might sound like an oxymoron, but it is about combining a rigid core of values and goals with the flexibility to reach and maintain them. As safety trainers, we need to abide by that phrase: We must strive to deliver each topic with the intention to make it stick, but how we accomplish the task should depend on the preference of the audience.

I firmly believe instructors within a particular organization have an important advantage. Like cooks at the company cafeteria, we know our customers and how they like their burgers prepared. We are involved in the system, yet removed enough to observe activities and behaviors from an objective perspective. Just as a good short-order cook retains customers by preparing a satisfying meal, a good safety trainer keeps his/her audience engaged and involved during the session and willing to attend another. The trust and comfort that develop slowly between us and our fellow employees are obstacles not easily overcome by the contracted trainer who is there for only a few hours to serve canned goods. The outside instructors miss out on the little things that you and I, as members of the organization, can use to our benefit. We connect to our audience daily through small gestures, common experiences, and imperceptible details.

However, we can be neither complacent with our delivery nor content with our flashy PowerPoints. As the U.S. Marine Corps’ motto suggests, we need to improvise new ways to deliver old topics, adapt to the changing times, standards, and audiences, and overcome any hurdle that may inhibit the learning process. We need to be rigid yet flexible, endorsing safe practices and adhering to regulations while developing creative hooks, such as the Cheeseburger Model, that will lure our audience’s interest and make them come back.

People may never like safety training, but they may like the person delivering it. If we win them over, the cheeseburger we are about to serve will be much easier to swallow.

Lara Volpe, the Ergonomics and IAQ Consultant at WCSU, contributed to this article.

This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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