We can avoid having cosmetically enhanced pigs running about in the training department by remembering this scary truth about safety training: Trainees always learn something.

The Scary Thing About Safety Training

Safety training can make a substantive impact on employee morale when instructors take this approach.

Imagine this scenario: You work at a utility as safety instructor and have been called in to a meeting with your supervisor. As you walk into her office, you note that an executive–someone from line management–is sitting with her, and they both look concerned. You are informed of one of the following two situations:

Situation #1: Several company vehicles have recently been involved in accidents while backing up. So far, the consequences have been limited to property damage; however, the managers believe that, unless some swift and effective initiative is taken, an injury is inevitable. Your assignment is to develop and present some safety training that will prevent any more backing-up accidents from occurring.

Situation #2: A new hazard will be present in the workplace. Perhaps work that has always been performed by two-person crews will now be performed by one-person crews, or crews that have always worked at ground level will be working for a couple of months in an aerial lift in proximity to energized electrical lines. Line management is determined to be proactive. Your assignment is to develop and present some safety training that will ensure employees have the necessary skills to protect themselves from falling and from electrocution.

When I first worked in safety training, I was given assignments similar to these. The bromide that compares solving a problem to eating an elephant certainly applied to me; I did not know where to begin. I had been thrilled to be promoted into the training department. Now, I was confronted with some tough questions:

  • Whom do I train?
  • What should the content of the training be?
  • Who is qualified to teach the class?
  • How do I test to confirm the trainees have mastered the material?

The ensuing decades have included extensive experience with addressing safety issues and also some formal training in both safety theory and instructional design. Over that time, I have learned, both in a production environment and in college classrooms, that I was asking the wrong questions. Questions about selecting trainees and instructors and the content of safety training are appropriate to ask once a safety issue has been rigorously analyzed. However, until that analysis has taken place, these questions are premature. They are based on the often incorrect assumption that training is the best approach to improving safety.

Effective training requires analysis of the safety issue that elicited the training request. This analysis will often reveal that safety training is not the most effective tactic for mitigating occupational hazards. This is an important lesson for supervisors who oversee instructors and training developers. Analyzing safety issues is a discipline, one that training personnel can, with study and practice, master. When one responds to requests for training by analyzing the underlying safety issues, the result will likely be skilled, safe, enthusiastic employees.

Trainees Always Learn Something
Safety training can make a substantive impact on employee morale when instructors take this approach. Imagine how much more attentive trainees would be when they file into a classroom for instructor-led training, or pull up a web-based course on their computer, if they have seen management upgrading equipment, using safer chemicals, and implementing employee recommendations for mitigating safety hazards.

The opposite is true if safety training is not founded on twin pillars of assessing the hazards and considering all options for mitigating the hazards. No matter how talented the instructors are, no matter how high the quality of the audiovisuals, no matter how tasty the donuts and bagels provided to the trainees, if management has not looked for safer chemicals and equipment and better work practices, the benefits of any training initiative will be cosmetic, not structural. To apply a popular idiom, management will be putting lipstick on a pig. We can avoid having cosmetically enhanced pigs running about in the training department by remembering this scary truth about safety training: Trainees always learn something.

    When employees must complete training that does not apply to their job, they learn that management does not view their time as important.
  • When generic training does not provide employees with the specific skills and knowledge they need to protect themselves, they learn that management is more concerned with regulatory compliance than protecting employees from injury.

If someone tells a safety instructor, "Let's run them through the training, it can't hurt," then the best answer is: "Really? I believe it can hurt." The instructor can go on to explain that training can easily undermine morale and instill a mindset that company training sessions are an opportunity to answer text messages. The best response an instructor can make to any request for safety training is to analyze the request. The first questions to the person requesting the training should be:

  • What are the hazards to which employees are being exposed?
  • What are the options, in terms of changes to equipment, tools, work rules, PPE, and training, that would protect employees from the hazards?
  • Could fatigue or unclear communications be contributing to errors or accidents?
  • How will an improvement in safety performance be measured and documented?

OSHA's excellent guidance on the importance of hazard assessment states: "A first critical step in developing a comprehensive safety and health program is to identify physical and health hazards in the workplace." A hazard assessment should be the basis of the decision-making that takes place in developing a comprehensive safety program. Performing a hazard assessment and then regularly referring to it is an easy and effective technique for keeping a safety program well matched to the needs of an organization's employees.

Once a workplace's hazards have been identified, instructors can begin working on the second step of the analytical process: identifying the best ways to mitigate those hazards. Mitigation initiatives may very well include safety training, however, training, even at its best, relies upon ongoing changes in human behavior–something notoriously difficult both to elicit in the first place and to maintain over time. Table 1 lists some non-training safety initiatives that are likely to be more effective and less expensive.

Table 1. Non-Training Safety Initiatives

 Initiative  Examples
 Changing equipment to eliminate a hazard
 Installing strobes and light bars on vehicles that will be parked in traffic zones. Installing rear-view cameras on vehicles with poor rear visibility.
 Changing workplace chemicals
 Using citrus-based, instead of solvent, degreasers.
 Isolating workers from the hazard
 Reducing electric shock hazard by barricading a utility truck being operated in proximity to energized lines.
 Improvements to administrative processes
 Making it easier for employees who need ladders to check them out or, better yet, conducting a job hazard analysis as part of the job-planning process, then ensuring the proper-length ladders are available at the beginning of the job. Spotters could be required whenever a vehicle is backing up in a congested area.
 Addressing motivational concerns
 If workers are experiencing stress because of the possibility of layoffs, planning a communications strategy that will minimize the possibility of destructive rumors and planning some stress-reducing activities.

 

Analyzing training requests can significantly improve a company's effectiveness. Here is a real-life example: In 1990, OSHA published a regulation titled Occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in laboratories. At a utility that was working on complying with the regulation, a team of chemists and a safety instructor were developing a training program that met all of the requirements of the regulation.

More than one hundred of the utility's employees analyzed water as part of their job responsibilities. Some of the water was analyzed to determine whether it contained the proper residuals of chemicals for use in in fossil-fueled and nuclear power plants. Other water samples were analyzed to determine whether it was pure enough to be discharged into lakes and canals. One of chemists on the team read the regulation and came across this exemption to some of the training requirements: "This section shall not apply to: . . test media such as Dip-and-Read . . . (or) . . . commercially prepared kits . . . ." Based on this exemption, the chemist proposed that, rather than annually training all the employees who performed water chemistry, instead the utility should use commercially prepared water testing kits when possible. (Kits were available for most of the water analysis that the employees performed.) Using these kits reduced the number of employees who needed to receive the OSHA-mandated training to fewer than one-third of those who were originally identified. And there were a couple of additional benefits: The accuracy of the water analysis was improved, and employees' exposure to chemicals was reduced.

Every company could experience similar success stories if training personnel are encouraged to rigorously analyze training requests.

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

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