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Training Like It's 1999: Tips for More Effective Safety Training

Aug. 7, 2020
Don't be afraid to innovate when it comes to keeping workers safe.

Picture this, you have just been hired by the big construction outfit where all your family and friends work. You’ve heard for years about all the money there is to be made and let’s face it, you have been worried how you were going to pay off your student loans since you dropped out. You’re offered a position as a carpenter apprentice at $15.00 and can’t say yes fast enough.

Your first day on the job is going to entail sitting through safety training before you can go to work. The safety manager pops in a VHS tape of some guy from 15-20 years prior with goofy-looking glasses talking about concepts that seem like common sense, and says he’ll be back in 30 minutes to do your drug screen.

As the vertical lines and warbled audio infiltrate the lesson, you think to yourself, “This is hot garbage. There’s no way this info is important, if it was they would surely have updated it by now.” Sure enough, the 30-minute mark rolls around and the safety manager comes in with a cup telling you to fill up to the line. You don’t remember much from the video as you walk out onto the job site, except you hope the glasses don’t make you look as dorky as the guy in the video.

For decades, this has been the standard for training employees in various industries. Some organizations very likely still use VHS safety videos from yesteryear or online videos from a third-party. Other, more modern, organizations have upgraded to the highly revered and super-effective (sarcasm of course!) power-point presentations (PPT). I can hear you now, “My PPTs aren’t just slideshows, we discuss everything on the slides too.”

And yes, there is great value in discussing training while utilizing visual aids as identified in an article on the University of Washington’s Teaching Resources website (Teaching with PowerPoint, 2020). The article identifies how PPT can be used for discussion point prompts as well as quizzing learners. However, a Harvard study cited in Forbes (2017), identifies participants considered verbal presentations without visual aids were equally as effective as PPTs. Before we can look at ways we can improve training effectiveness, we must first look at how adults learn. We will do this by briefly looking at what adult learning is as well as what adult-centric training needs to be successful.

Andragogy is the term used for how adults learn; this term is not directly contrasting of pedagogy (how children learn) although the core tenets are different. Malcom Knowles (1975) provides the distinction between andragogy and pedagogy a participant-directed vs. teacher-directed learning, respectively. Effective adult learning should address three fundamental concerns: acknowledge the learner’s experience, establish an acceptable teacher/learner relationship, and promote self-direction and autonomy (Tennant & Pogson, 1995).

What is experiential learning, and how do we acknowledge it? Simply, experiential learning is what occurs when we take the information gained through experience and compare/contrast the information with the knowledge we previously possess. The types of experience we obtain information from can vary from interactive learning, formal classroom instruction, apprenticeships, on-the-job training (OJT), and many more.

We can acknowledge the learner’s experience by surveying the individual on previous experiences with a topic and developing the learning program to build off of the learner’s existing knowledge. Ignoring a learner’s experience can be detrimental to the process as identified by Merriam & Bierema (2014),” Because adults are who they are largely due to their accumulated life experiences, rejecting or ignoring their experiences is threatening to their independent self-concept…” (p. 50). Including the individual in the planning phase of learning activities can help establish more successful learning as identified by Wilson and Cervero (1996), “…all people who are affected by the program should be involved in the real choices of constructing the program” (p.22).

How should the teacher interact with the learner(s)? Depending on who the instructor and learner(s) are (i.e. employed by the same company, formal educator and students, etc.), several types of relationships may be appropriate in some circumstances. Brockett & Heimstra (2004) discuss at great length the questions educators should ask themselves when deciding the appropriate relationship between teacher and learner as well as provide a model for ethical decision making.

If the teacher/learner relationship is too casual, the learning process can suffer; however, if the relationship is too formal, adult learners may resist the learning process similar to the response when their experience is not valued. Additionally, establishing a proper relationship helps the teacher and learner understand their respective roles and how or what they are expected to do.

Finally, the importance of self-directed learning in adult learners is one of the most important attributes of adult learning. Self-directed learning (SDL) is not an idea that is easily defined, it is more of a process of learning. Caffarella (2000) does a good job of identifying four goals of SDL which can serve to help understand what it is: the first goal is to desire to gain knowledge or develop skills; the second is to be more self-directed (i.e. seek out new sources of information); the third is to incorporate transformation learning by using critical reflection (this is a whole topic for another article); and the fourth is moving beyond individual learning (i.e. acting upon new knowledge). SDL encourages the individual to continue learning outside of the structured learning environment (i.e. reading articles, books, and/or journals) without formal direction.

This seems like a lot of information and time to put into designing a training program reminding employees to wear their PPE. And truth is, it may be too much; however, we cannot expect employees to learn and participate in safety training if we do not acknowledge how adults learn and apply it to our teaching methods. Maybe slideshows and old videos work for you and your organization; but if you are training employees and finding they don’t retain the information, you may need to look at reformatting your training programs. Don’t be afraid to be new or different in your industry; it’s not stupid if it works.


Armstrong, P. (2017). Stop using PowerPoint, Harvard University says it’s damaging your brand and your company. Forbes, 07.05.17. https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/harvard-just-discovered-that-powerpoint-is-worse-than-useless.html

Caffarella, R. S. (2000). Goals of self-directed learning. In G. A. Straka (Ed.), Conceptions of self-directed learning: Theoretical and conceptual considerations (pp. 37-48). Berlin, Germany: Waxmann

Knowles, M. (1975). Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. New York, NY: Cambridge Books

Teaching with PowerPoint. (2020). Retrieved from https://english.washington.edu/teaching/teaching-powerpoint

Tennant, M., & Pogson, P. (1994). Learning and Change in the Adult Years: A Developmental Perspective. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Wilson, A.L., & Cervero, R.M. (1996). Who sits at the planning table: Ethics and planning practice. Adult Learning, 8(2), 20-22.

About the Author

Nathan Vann, CSP

Nathan Vann is safety director for Cleveland Utilities in Cleveland, Tennessee. He has over 15 years of experience in Occupational Health and Safety specializing in training and safety education. He is an OSHA Authorized General Industry Trainer, a Certified Safety Professional (BCSP), and currently enrolled in the Masters of Education Psychology concentration in Adult Education at The University of Tennessee – Knoxville.

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