Safety training is finally taking a much-needed step forward.

The Future of Safety Training

Safety training is finally taking the next giant step in the right direction.

Turn back the clock 150 years in North American labor history and you'll see a very different picture than today, especially when it comes to workplace safety. What was primarily an agricultural economy was moving into the industrial age -- a world of textiles, chemicals, mining, machining, and transportation, among other things. However, the machines and equipment that helped drive a new era of economic prosperity also got bigger, more complex, and more dangerous.

People were getting injured and dying in large numbers. There was little or no regard for safety and by the late 1800s, the problem was so alarming that organizations and governments were spurred to take action. New legislation, safety boards, and labor organizations quickly emerged to remedy a situation that had gone on for too long.

Manufacturers everywhere began to make changes by implementing awareness training, guidelines, and policies. Most importantly, they began to shift the way they thought about workplace safety. All of these efforts amounted to significant improvements. However, a hundred years later, those initial safety gains have now started to level off. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that in the private sector, the number of days away from work cases had decreased by 3 percent in 2011, yet the median number of days away from work was eight days for the fourth consecutive year. What's the problem?

If we consider a typical, modern workplace safety program, it generally consists of four key elements:
1) Environment: Physical and social factors that contribute to a safe workplace;
2) Policy: Procedures that ensure practices are aligned with safety objectives;
3) Training: The delivery of consistent safety information to all employees; and
4) Awareness: Employees who proactively promote and live by all of the above.

Although workplace safety programs are contributing to far safer environments, most organizations still see the same old issues: back injuries, eye injuries, and slips, trips & falls. If you study OSHA statistics during the past decade, our efforts to curb injuries and fatalities are flat-lining, it seems. Why is that? Of all safety measures, training and continued awareness are the most difficult to make stick because they primarily rely on employees' ability to learn, understand, and comprehend critical safety practices. They also require the employee to buy into the safety culture of an organization because the majority of workplace injuries are rooted in employees' attitudes, behaviors, and culture, rather than dangerous and hazardous workplace conditions.

Delivering Effective Training in the Modern Era
It's become clear that simply delivering training is only half the answer. How it's delivered can have a huge impact on effectiveness and translation into behavior change on the job. Fortunately, new techniques are emerging that are significantly moving the needle.

One of the biggest challenges facing safety managers today is the fact that people often quickly forget what they've learned. It isn't because training was necessarily poor; instead, cognitive learning theory suggests that people only absorb four to five pieces of information into short-term memory at any given time. Items stored in short-term memory can be quickly lost if not used or reinforced regularly after training has occurred. What does this mean? Employees tend to retain only a small percentage of what they learn in a single training session.

Unfortunately, employees are expected to remember everything they learn in those sessions and then apply that knowledge on the job if and when needed. It rarely works like that, however. In a 2008 study of employees who were queried about applying what they learned, only 15 percent were able to achieve sustained new behaviors, while the other 85 percent either failed or didn't try. Clearly, something isn't translating between the point of training delivery and actual performance.

In addition to the simple realities of memory, the hurdle of delivering training that accommodates learning styles, cultural differences, and multiple languages has never been bigger. With traditional training methods, this can be costly and time consuming. But without it, employees are presented with additional barriers to retaining the knowledge they need. Another difficulty with delivery of safety training is consistency. Most central corporate training programs are delivered in the same manner to all branch facilities, yet somehow safety records have significant discrepancies from facility to facility. These types of inconsistencies can be due to a variety of factors, including different management styles, plant cultures, and even different priorities. It's difficult to uncover exactly what causes the discrepancies and what measures can be taken to improve safety practices to bring all facilities to a consistent level.

Consistency of learning delivery is a hard metric to track; identifying what employees know and don't know has been historically measured by the bad things that happen when they do something wrong. The need to know which employees, groups, or facilities need additional training and in what areas is a critical one. While there are models and methods for evaluating training as it's applied to the job, such models often involve significant time and effort on the part of the employees and the manager, consequentially impacting both productivity and employee satisfaction. And with workforce turnover, it's right back to square one.

As long as people are involved in manufacturing, there will be a need for safety training. Fortunately there are emerging developments that can improve the overall effectiveness of training delivery, helping employees retain more information and apply it effectively to their jobs. By combining the latest in brain science and technology advances, safety training is poised to take a major leap forward.

The first such advance is bite-sized learning -- the process of developing information on a single topic and delivering it in a short, simple, and memorable way. The act of "chunking" information into digestible amounts avoids information overload and helps an employee remember more. Breaking down key learning points into small bursts, anywhere from 60 seconds to five minutes, also helps to keep the employee engaged and interested instead of tuning out.

The second cognitive discovery in recent years is something called active recall. Also known as retrieval practice, or the testing effect, active recall is the process of retrieving information from memory as a method to improve learning of that information. How do you do this? Simply by asking and answering. Active recall is extremely effective when interspersed with short learning bursts. This requires learners to actively recall what they have learned and therefore imprints it more firmly in long-term memory.

The third brain science concept key to driving knowledge retention is something called interval reinforcement. Although interval reinforcement has been around since the times of Freud, its application to learning is a relatively recent one. Also known as spaced learning, interval reinforcement is the process of providing information to learners repeatedly over a period of 30-60 days that reinforces a prior learning event. Repetition with the right spacing in between has been proven to drive retention of knowledge.

Gamification and Mobile Technology
Some of the other developments in safety training are related closely to the rapid growth of technology. The concept of gamification applies known game mechanics to the design of learning in order to improve employee engagement and to serve as an accelerator for learning. Gamification can take many forms, such as video games, games of chance, or team challenges. Team challenges also can involve leader boards and other rewards systems to enhance and maintain employee interest and motivation.

With the widespread use of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, learners now have the ability to learn anywhere, any time. It's no longer the case that employees have to be pulled off the floor for long training sessions, impacting productivity. For the corporate trainer, the ability to deliver training material with mobile learning has become limitless.

Safety training programs that incorporate bite-sized learning, combined with active recall and spaced repetition, are already making multimillion-dollar bottom-line impacts in a variety of training applications and across industries. Safety training is finally taking the next giant step in the right direction. The time to adapt is now.

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