Is Online Fall Protection Training Effective?

When it comes to a topic like fall protection, can an online training program be effective for your employees?

Imagine that you just have completed a 2-hour fall protection course online and you have received a certificate for your wall. However, you feel a little confused and concerned. You're confused because the certificate is very formal in its appearance and has many references to OSHA, but you don't think you did much to deserve it. You're concerned that tomorrow you may be walking high steel and this certificate is your defense that you know what you're doing.

There are a myriad of options available to employers who are considering how to deliver fall protection training. All options have their pros and cons. One training method takes advantage of technology and delivers fall protection instruction or education through computer-based training (CBT) programs.

Different media for fall protection training have existed for a long time, as evidenced by the number of training videos available. CBT programs also have been around for a while, but only recently have they begun to be used to deliver fall protection training. Some even allow participants to download certificates when they have completed the training. Using CBT for fall protection has its merits, but there also are concerns about fall protection CBT.

Regulatory agencies offer little direction about the specific amount of time that must be spent on fall protection training, let alone the manner in which it is conducted or the content. In defense of these agencies, fall protection training changes from one employer to the next and within specific industries depending on the work to be performed at heights, so it is very difficult to set minimum training requirements. Like any training program, employers should understand requirements of the work being conducted and plan their training accordingly. The ANSI/ASSE Z359 Fall Protection Code — specifically, ANSI/ASSE Z359.2-2007 (Minimum Requirements for a Comprehensive Managed Fall Protection Program) — provides employers with more direction about how to set learning objectives for fall protection training programs. Once an assessment of training needs is conducted, the manner in which the training is delivered can be addressed.

BENEFITS OF COMPUTER-BASED TRAINING

From an education point of view, CBT has merit. CBT is one of the only ways to guarantee that the same information is delivered the same way every single time the course is conducted. Training with a traditional instructor can stray from the objectives and include meaningful conversations among participants in one course and not in another. Courses can be at the mercy of the individual instructor's opinions, beliefs and schedule. A CBT program, however, provides the same content from one student to the next without straying from the topic.

Discussions about CBT can go both ways. Do you achieve a higher quality of education by keeping the course static, or does an instructor add value to the program by having discussions, answering questions in real time and discussing other related topics?

For certain students, CBT is the preferred method of instruction. Students can read at their own pace, go back and forth through the program, and review the information as many times as necessary for them to understand it.

A traditional classroom and instructor-led program does not provide the same level of flexibility for each student. If students do not speak up or do not understand the lesson topic, they often are left behind because the course must stay on a schedule. This is one of the main arguments for CBT.

For CBT to be effective, the student must be interested in the topic and have some personal motivation to study, review the material and understand it. CBT programs often fall victim to “clicking through” by the students without any time spent on the content. This is so common that some CBT programs are being programmed to identify the “clickers” and take steps to prevent abuse. With instructor-led courses, students are unable to ignore the instructor speaking directly to them or requiring them to attend and participate in course content.

SBT AND FALL PROTECTION

Discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of CBT versus traditional classroom training can be extensive, and it is easy to see the merits of both methods. Within the scope of fall protection training however, there is a big difference.

Fall protection requires skill sets that CBT alone cannot provide. Not only are there theoretical concepts that a student must understand, there are hands-on requirements. They are not difficult or complex, but an integral element to authorized, competent and rescuer training is the opportunity for the students to conduct the skills portion of the training based on what is required of them onsite.

This particularly is important for authorized and competent categories. Properly donning a full body harness is an absolute necessity for any worker who will be working at height. The worker must be provided with the opportunity to touch, inspect, wear and use a harness during training. How to wrap an anchorage connector or install a beam clamp are further examples of skill sets that may be required, as are installing a fall arrestor on a vertical lifeline, attaching a ladder sleeve to the front of a harness, inspecting equipment before use and using a Y-lanyard to traverse structures and the list goes on and on.

If you reflect on safety courses in which you learned the most, chances are that those courses included many hands-on exercises. CBT cannot provide or supervise this element. Effective fall protection training that achieves the highest level of education and demonstrates due diligence must include hands-on exercises.

This is the main issue with using CBT alone for fall protection training. Although CBT is very flexible, cost effective and allows training to be conducted most anywhere at any time, not providing opportunities to practice necessary skill sets and the absence of observations of performance are problematic. It is impossible to defend CBT as the single method of fall protection training because fall protection requires hands-on exercises.

The ANSI/ASSE Z359 Fall Protection Code provides direction for employers about how to deliver fall protection training and it is an excellent reference to not only establish a fall protection program, but to identify training needs and structure the training program. Section 3.3 (Training and Evaluations) states that the documentation must include “performance of student based upon observation of physical demonstrations of skill or on theoretical exercises.” If the needs assessment of training includes the use of equipment and active fall protection systems, physical observations of performance must be included in the training.

Using CBT is an excellent medium to disseminate information, but it falls short when hands-on skills are required. In some respects, the employee's time and the employer's money are wasted on fall protection training programs (for authorized and competent level training) that do not include hands-on exercises for the equipment employees are expected to use. Hands-on exercises are the only way to achieve the highest level of education possible and to demonstrate due diligence before the work begins.

Unfortunately, many training programs rely on a worker watching a video and signing a roster. Improperly administered CBT can fall into this category unless there are checks and balances within the program to ensure that the student has understood the theoretical topics (fall distance, energy dissipation, system components, etc.) and it is augmented with hands-on skills. This combination proves due diligence and provides a higher level of understanding and education.

Many successful training programs use a combination of CBT and instructor-led programs. The foundation of knowledge can be delivered through CBT, which offers consistency and cost-effectiveness, while instructor-led programs provide an opportunity for the student to participate in hands-on training to develop other skill sets.


Kevin Denis is the training manager for Gravitec Systems Inc., which specializes in fall protection engineering, consulting, training, testing and technical equipment. For the last 15 years, Denis has been involved with establishing successful fall protection programs and audits for dozens of companies throughout Canada and the United States. He manages a training department that averages over 50,000 student training hours per year and has authored national-recognized training standards for a number of different industries.

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