To Every Topic, There is a Season

When you review your overall program, make sure your topics are seasonally accurate for the employees so they will retain the information.

A quick scan of recent newspaper headlines reveals many employees who may not have received adequate on-the-job safety training: three employees electrocuted in a confined space situation, several dead from an crane collapse, toxic chemical exposures, an excavation cave-in on unprotected employees (with proper shields on site), along with BBP exposures and improper use of PPE.

If you want to know whether your training program is working, have one employee die or be seriously injured from work-related causes—the audit of your training program will be completed by skilled OSHA compliance officers and the legal team for the injured employee or his family. You’ll be the star of the “blame and finger pointing show,” answering questions you never imagined concerning the lack of effectiveness of your program. A perfect program is rare indeed when picked apart by professionals. Safety will take center stage, and not in a positive way.

Where is training on your long list of safety priorities? Front and center or pushed way to the back? Few companies design a training program. It evolves over time by adding a required training class here, a video there, and then another and another.Over time, there are many bits and pieces of training, but not a comprehensive program.Managing and promoting a positive, effective program takes effort, time, and planning, which are difficult for an already stretched safety staff and budget.We tend to push training to the back of the stack due to lack of resources and manpower, or safety becomes invisible when not in attendance at important classes.

It Starts with Your Audit
Audit your program. You will not like what you see, but by auditing, you begin the “fix” for your training program. First, you have to make sure your program is meeting the marks set by you and upper management. (When was the last time you set training marks?) Training has become an “add on” to safety over the years, brought on by recordkeeping requirements and the focus on safety-targeted programs for employees. But does your program really work?

In order to audit a training program, you have to establish your program and your priorities. To do so is time consuming and a balance of budget,needs,and resources available.You also have to consider the hazards to which your workers are exposed.

Your basics of setting up a training program revolve around the questions of:

• Why do we train? Regulation? Requests? Task analysis of hazards?

• On what topics do we train? Who selects them, and why are they chosen?

• Whom do we train? New employees or tiered levels of training on selected topics? Are we training 100 percent of all employees, and can we prove it?

• How do we train? Videos? DVDs? Handouts? Live instructors? Intranet courses? Audio? One on one?

• How do we gather feedback? With surveys? Suggestion boxes? Is there a safety person present at the training to ask for feedback and assess the mood of the employees? (Angry employees do not receive training well when they think their time is being wasted, as we know.)

• How do we gauge the success or failure of a training program? Attendance? Convenience? Feedback? Hours devoted?

• How often do we repeat the process? Once? Every six months? Never?

• How is programs’ attendance documented? Check: Is it being documented?

• How often is upper management advised about the status of your program? Quarterly? Yearly? Only when asked?

If you can willingly and accurately respond to each of these items, you have a smoothly functioning training plan.

Make Contingency Plans
Have a backup plan ready for when things go wrong. Once I was caught off guard without a backup plan. Seventeen employees who had traveled to class were there on time, having driven as much as three hours to attend an 8 a.m. chainsaw training class. The industry instructor did not show up or call after having confirmed the class the previous week. Tempers flared as they waited for a no-show instructor.My only answer was blunt and honest: “I fully admit I am not qualified to teach this class, which is why we brought in an industry trainer. I’m not going to further waste your time; I’ll let you know when the next class will be,”I said.“Go back to your work sites.”

The only redeeming factor was discussing with the group what kinds of training worked and what they needed in the field.With a mixed group, from rookies and temp workers to 30+-year seasoned employees, this was no time for a basic video.While it was not my mistake, the employees wanted an apology—and that morning, they got several.While the training success took a hit, in the long term, it showed I was trying to provide qualified, needed training and not wasting time.

Beyond the Numbers
Training is more than a numbers game.Many companies have a training program in name only and point to success by attendance. Topics and presentations are outdated, inaccurate, not meaningful for the work being done, and not appropriate for the audience.As you review your training program in detail, some considerations include:

Effectiveness.Consider your employees when bringing out new training. Some presentations are hard to follow, use language that requires an advanced knowledge of the topic, or do not lend themselves to those for whom English is a second language. Have you thought about special accommodations for hearing- or visionimpaired employees?

Timeliness. Are you teaching snowplow safety in June? When you review your overall program,make sure your topics are seasonally accurate for the employees so they will retain the information. Plan your topics carefully, such as heat stress for late spring, cold stress for outdoor work in the fall, etc. It means more and will help your program’s image, too. Planning out three months ahead of the hazard helps.

Appeal. Do you ask for feedback from employees, or are they simply prisoners of the training time? You may be surprised at their opinions of your programs.You may not like many of their comments, either.

Appropriateness. Consider how advanced the training presentation is. What is appropriate for new employees may be a waste of time for well-seasoned, longterm workers. Tier your training to meet the needs of new hires and intermediate and advanced skill levels.

Documentation. The old adage is true: If it is not documented, it did not happen! Few of us can remember all of the training presentations we have attended or when we took them. Make sure each employee completes registration and keep this, whether in high-tech databases, on computerized sign-in sheets, or by use of pen and paper.

Our Lifeline to Safety
Policy and awareness must be consistent for your training program to succeed. Otherwise, employees (and management) will question your efforts.Make updating and merging the initiatives of both written policy and training/awareness efforts yet another priority of your time.

For safety professionals, training helps us know each employee is adequately armed with the knowledge and ability to work safely.While we cannot ensure each employee will actually use the knowledge and not take shortcuts,we have made a good-faith effort to make the workplace safer.With employees comes free will to choose safe work habits.Unfortunately, all too often,we learn of these shortcuts after an employee is seriously injured or killed.

Well-documented, often-presented training helps reinforce correct behaviors in the workplace. You cannot make any employee work safely, but you can train and document they have been taught over and over the correct procedures and processes to work safely. Auditing your training program keeps you from forgetting or overlooking important issues and moves your program forward. If your program is not improving through training efforts, it is worsening, day by day, from neglect.

We safety professionals tend to get a program set up and then move on to another needed topic for completion. The reality is that training is never completed, no matter how tired we as the safety pros get of it. Get help from outside vendors that can provide a different technique or approach to employee training.Your goal is simple: to educate to the point of working safely without even realizing it.Training professionals call it “training to second nature,”and it works with repetition and constant updating of your topics.

For all of the headaches, stress, and perceived failures we as safety professionals have about training, it is one of our lifelines to employee safety. A tough topic to audit, it is an area that nevertheless has to be constantly reviewed, audited, and updated with both resources and time. (There is never enough time.) Auditing our program is a measuring stick of what we are not getting done in a timely manner, and usually there is a long list.However, auditing provides that measurement tool for us to assess and improve our efforts,working smarter with both new technology and old-fashioned delivery methods.

Our employees deserve the best training available, and safety is often the most qualified to determine what is needed and how to get the message across consistently. Keep the message positive. It builds confidence that your program is working in a positive way.

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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