Safety Education: The Method is the Message

July 1, 2000
Many companies are discovering that how they do safety and health education is just as important as what they teach.

More than 100 OSHA regulations oblige companies to train their workers, and there are plenty of training programs designed to comply with these requirements. Yet, many businesses are discovering that a more ambitious approach to safety and health training that goes beyond compliance, even if it is more expensive in the short term, can yield a big long-term payoff. In the process, they are using more interactive training methods to make safety training more productive and even entertaining.

At New Hampshire Ball Bearings Inc. (NHBB) in Peterborough, N.H., the company is using its safety training to support a cultural shift toward employee empowerment, according to human resources manager Carole Reid.

"Getting our work force to understand they are self-empowered" is at the heart of the effort, Reid said. "We want to help them understand that their destiny is in their own hands."

Reid said her previous experience with safety training had come from loss control people at the company's workers' compensation carrier. It was a one-size-fits-all approach focused on being in compliance with OSHA, and it had yielded limited results.

"There was an hour session in the morning, an hour session in the afternoon, and they were out of here," she said.

Facilities manager Patti Carrier uses the word "education" rather than "training" in describing what the ball bearings plant sought. While traditional training programs often assume that simply imparting information will lead to behavioral change, newer approaches try to get workers actively involved in learning. This way, they will understand the hazards and take responsibility for changing their behavior and the work site itself.

For example, the company decided to take a proactive approach toward ergonomics because of the proposed OSHA standard and because the plant has assembly operations with material handling that raise many ergonomic issues. "We were trying to figure out how we could get employees engaged in ergonomics," Carrier said.

The company hired the Windham Group, a Bedford, N.H., consulting firm that specializes in "psychosocial ergonomics." The ergonomics training provided by Windham was more expensive, but what it provided could not be more different from the standard lecture-style training Reid's company was used to.

The first thing the consultants did was to spend a day and a half evaluating the workplace so that, once they began to teach, they could use site-specific material. Carrier said that using concrete examples drawn from the plant helped workers relate better to the training program.

The training was quite interactive, according to Carrier. The teachers would explain ergonomic risk factors and immediately put up a picture of someone from the plant in a certain position. The workers were asked to say what risks were present and how they could be remedied.

Windham Group consultant Kurt Rever explained that most stand-up presentations address only auditory learners. "In our stand-up sessions, we address the auditory, visual and rote, or repetitive, learning styles," he said. Using a variety of approaches reduces classroom tedium and increases the odds that workers will latch on to the new information.

"Use it or lose it" is a phrase that sums up some of the research on adult learning. Unless new information is applied, research shows, it will be forgotten. The Windham Group's emphasis on engaging the learner has improved knowledge retention, according to Carrier.

"The trainers encouraged employees to talk amongst themselves and to look out for each other back at their work stations," she said. If they could not correct the hazards on their own, they were encouraged to seek help from a supervisor.

In addition, the Windham Group combined the traditional classroom with what Rever called "the walking classroom." In this phase of the program, the consultants and employees go out onto the shop floor and watch workers do their job. Doing this reinforces the lessons learned in the classroom and allows for "tweaking" of misperceptions.

"The idea here is to embed things learned in class by applying them to a specific work station," Rever said. The walking classroom gives workers the chance to reiterate what they've just learned. It also dramatically increases the chance that employees will not forget the lessons of the classroom.

Allowing students to talk about what they have learned and to use it can mean a retention rate of 90 percent, according to Judy Jarrell, associate director of education at the University of Cincinnati's Department of Environmental Health. If the students turn around and teach others what they just learned, retention of information climbs to 95 percent, Jarrell said.

Adult Education

IMC Kalium's potash mine in Carlsbad, N.M., an underground mining and milling facility that is regulated by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is also putting new emphasis on the value of safety education that goes beyond regulatory compliance.

Asked to sum up the difference between compliance-based training and the way they do things now, Bill Holder, manager of safety and training in Carlsbad, was blunt.

"It's not just counting butts in a seat, but looking at training as learning from an adult education perspective." This means recognizing the variety of methods -- verbal and visual -- needed to reach adult learners, plus the value of repetition and the need to foster soft skills such as leadership and communication.

"We think it's important that there's two-way communication between teacher and student," Holder said. Workers are becoming more comfortable with voicing their views and offering their expertise about all phases of production.

Holder emphasized that he now sees training as a "journey," not a destination. "You don't just throw it out there once. You revisit it."

The Carlsbad facility has one person who devotes all of her time to training. "It's a huge resource for us," Holder said. "This makes training easier. It takes a lot of the pain out of it. We're doing 10 times as much training as we did five years ago."

The training manager does all preliminary research on new programs and determines whether to do them in-house or with outside experts.

Although training originally was seen as tied primarily to safety, the company realized over time the benefits of added training for all phases of operations, especially production.

"In the last few years, we established training to be just as important as anything else we talk about, such as profits and safety," Holder explained. "That's why it's a separate entity within my department." What was originally the safety department is called the safety and training department.

Changing Attitudes

Worker participation in safety and health training appears to have gone one step further at ATOFINA Chemicals' refrigerant and plastics manufacturing plant in Calvert City, Ky.

Consultants from Behavioral Science Technology (BST) of Ojai, Calif., came into the facility and taught a 13-member steering team what they needed to know to get started on the worker observation program, called CATS (Changing Attitudes Toward Safety).

Like all training programs, CATS is designed to supplement, not replace, a complete safety and health management system.

The purpose of the program is to enable workers to do behavior-based observations on other employees while they are working. Employees go through a two-day course that teaches them how to identify hazards and do observations.

"The first day is the most boring," CATS facilitator Bob Evans said. "We spend two or three hours covering the most common at-risk behaviors, like eyes on path, eyes on task or PPE." But, Evans added, the course is popular with workers. One reason is that games like bingo, Jeopardy and even horseshoes are used to present the material.

"It's amazing how many safe and at-risk behaviors you can see in a simple game of horseshoes," Evans said. He explained that many issues arise while the game is being set up: tool selection and use, communication, putting a hand on the stake too close to the top when pounding it into the ground, not using gloves, eyes on task, etc. During play, players may stand too close to the "line of fire" or be so close to the stake when throwing that they risk hurting their hand.

Another well-liked feature of the course is that it is done by five instructors, all from inside the plant. Three of them are hourly workers.

"They can see that the employees are passionate about this, rather than somebody outside telling them that's how we're going to do things," Evans explained. In addition, managers and workers take the course, so the training ignores the worker-manager distinction.

Nearly half of the plants' 300 workers have gone through the course. Evans said they only teach 12 at a time to provide sufficient interaction.

Course material is based on an analysis of five years of incident investigations at the facility. "We had to know what we were looking for," Evans explained. As a result, the training is targeted to particular at-risk behaviors bedeviling the plant's safety record.

Once the course is completed, observers have a system and a resource book for checking what is safe and what is not. Positive feedback is given for safe behavior, while an at-risk action leads to a discussion between the observer and the one observed.

Behavior-based safety often has a bad reputation with labor. Before starting the program, Evans made it clear there would be a "no name, no blame" policy with regard to observations, so he was able to obtain a letter of commitment from the plant's unions.

Evans, himself an hourly employee, said that "probably 99 percent of the time, the worker is not to blame for the at-risk behavior. It could be he didn't recognize the hazard, so with some training, he could change that."

Workers are also encouraged to identify workplace barriers and to take them up with their supervisor. If the supervisor does not respond, the employee can go to the area safety team, which has more clout.

One key advantage to the worker-observer system is that it allows employees to apply and teach what they have learned about safe work practices.

"One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it, there's no doubt about that," Evans said. Because of this, he is trying to make it possible for those who go through the course to teach it to others.

Small Groups

Glen Erwin, health and safety coordinator for the Paper Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE), is a passionate advocate of the small-group activity method of safety education that he believes empowers workers.

The small-group method works by placing workers around a number of small, round tables and giving them a problem or scenario to elicit their opinions. Breaking into small groups is crucial, Erwin said, because many workers will not speak up otherwise.

Each small group does its analysis together and reports back to the larger group. This forces at least one worker to teach what he has learned from the group.

"What I'm interested in is how you solve problems in the plants," Erwin said. "Problems are solved by small groups of people working together, figuring out what the problems are and how you solve them."

Erwin also avoids the word "training." "Education helps the workers understand why they shouldn't do this or that," he explained. "That's the difference between training and education." The PACE approach also is intended to empower workers to question possible unsafe production processes.

"The small-group method takes longer and costs more money, so I understand why a lot of companies don't want to do it," he said.

Erwin also believes the courses are far more effective when workers present the material.

As for training that is aimed at mere compliance with OSHA standards, Erwin said, "If that's the goal, they're just wasting their money and the workers' time."

Video-based training is hard to incorporate into the workplace and virtually useless, according to Erwin. Many workers may dismiss the material because of how it is presented. People they do not know speaking to them from a screen is not as compelling as a "live" co-worker who is passionate about safety. If the information being presented is not site-specific enough, it will be even more difficult for employees to take the video seriously. "I've napped through them myself. It's real tough if you're the poor sucker who gets them after lunch."

Video training should not be seen as the total solution to safety training, but a tool that can help support the overall message, according to Bryan Hornik, vice president of marketing at Summit Training Source Inc., a producer of video and computer training products. Hornik said his company, and its competitors, also sell customized videos so the information can be site-specific.

Moreover, noted Jarrell and other training experts, using a variety of visual and audio media in a training session increases the chance the information will be retained.

Measuring Success

Evaluating the effectiveness of safety training programs is crucial and extremely difficult, many experts say.

In the first place, if the program is aimed at changing the corporate culture, the benefits may be real but hard to quantify.

Quite often, real improvements take a long time to materialize. NHBB's Reid said that while she hopes ergonomic issues will decline eventually at her plant, it is too soon to evaluate the outcome of the program because it was only completed in September. In fact, she said, she is expecting a short-term increase in ergonomic complaints as workers become more aware of the problem.

Carrier said she believes the training has been effective so far. "You see workers requesting things like keyboard trays, or I can see them moving their chairs, making adjustments."

One obvious way to determine the success of a safety and health instruction program is to look at OSHA recordables. It is usually impossible to prove a direct connection between training and safety results. Ultimately, however, this is the goal of any effective program.

Holder said the number of recordables at the Carlsbad plant was down by 62 percent over the last three years. Workers' compensation costs have been slashed by 75 percent.

Results at ATOFINA Chemicals are even more dramatic. For years, the Kentucky plant's total case incident rate (TCIR) wavered around 2.0. Last year, the first year of the BST program, the TCIR was zero.

"This plant has been here 50 years, and it's the first time we had zero recordables in a whole year. That's lower than the corporate office," Evans said.

The tired phrase "our employees are our most valuable resource" may have become a business cliche, but it is a theme sounded repeatedly at companies that have made the transition from compliance-based safety training to a more ambitious -- and expensive -- educational approach.

The tight labor market, competitive pressures and wanting to do the right thing are cited as explanations for the shift. Whatever the reason, the cliche appears to be coming true at companies willing to invest in educating "their most valuable resource."

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