5. Meaningful Safety and Health Training

Don't Just Train Your Employees, Engage Them!

June 5, 2014
The pace at which change is happening – in business demands, technology and skill requirements – means that workplace learning methods must change as well. 

In my dreams, I get paid to play golf. If you've seen me play, then you know it's a crazy dream. Still, in my effort to improve my putting, I upped my training this past winter; I studied Stan Utley diagrams, read as many Golf Digest articles as I could and watched countless videos, all in an effort to follow my dream.

Not surprisingly, my first game of the year, this past weekend, did not show any benefit from my "training." Even though I was discouraged, I knew deep down that all the reading and passive instruction was no substitute for actual practice time.

Transitioning back to reality, to the world of environmental health and safety, I have to ask myself if the results of the passive training formats we've grown accustomed to are all that different from the results of my efforts to improve my golf game.

Obviously, one of the primary purposes of providing EHS training is to change or reinforce behavior. Because of this, we simply cannot afford to have these programs fall short with respect to knowledge acquisition. When we refer to employee engagement in this context, we mean "walking the walk" – that is, demonstrating understanding of key concepts, and more importantly, exhibiting the desired behaviors to minimize risk.

More Important than Ever

No doubt you are aware that the aging workforce means there will be fewer workers available to fill future positions. We are going to need everyone who is willing and able to contribute in some way. Looking forward, we continually will need to develop the skills of our existing workforce, with special consideration to older workers. With that will come challenges. The pace at which change is happening – in business demands, technology and skill requirements – means that workplace learning methods must change as well.   
When we think about how to design and deliver EHS training to optimize employee engagement, Albert Badura's theory about self-regulating efficacy (a person's belief that he can apply knowledge and/or perform a task that results in some desired positive change in his environment) particularly is relevant. The design of your EHS training must consider the changing demographic described above, and be centered around empowering employees to keep up with the rate of change, as well as any new knowledge and skill requirements. According to Bandura, this is critical, as a higher percentage of jobs focus more on cognitive abilities and decision-making rather than physical strength.

Passive Learning Falls Short

Think back to why your EHS training programs failed. Was it because the participants got overloaded with information in a short amount of time? Were they not able to apply the acquired knowledge in a context that was meaningful to them? 

As a guest in many of your facilities, I have seen hundreds of contractor safety videos in which, after 15 minutes, the different siren sequences begin to blend together and I usually am confused as to exactly where my emergency muster station is. This is a personification of the early 1900s Ebbingnhaus Forgetting Curve (by German psychologist Hermann Ebbingnhaus) because I have no context in which to immediately apply that information. 

Research shows that when video-based training is well-designed, it is effective only about 20 percent of the time. So, is it time to ask ourselves what our trainees really take away from it?

Optimizing EHS Training

Adults learn best with a particular style of learning, and depending on the audience and the topic, it might be a combination of formal, informal and social learning. Brain-based research has concluded that the more senses that are involved in learning, the easier and faster memory storage and retention will be. 

Admittedly, I'm not an expert on principles of workplace learning, but this makes perfect sense to me. In 15 years of delivering on-site ergonomics skills training, nobody has ever given me feedback that they wish they had spent less time on the plant floor and more time in the classroom.

At an organizational level, author Bob Kelleher asserts that successful engagement is about (among other things) sustaining a learning culture. This is reinforced by a significant amount of research, including work done by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and by Charles Jennings, director of the 70:20:10 Forum.  

The "70:20:10" model describes how learning development is 70 percent from learning while doing the job, 20 percent from social learning (from peers) and 10 percent from formal lecture and instruction. 

One of the most thought-provoking ideas I've read is that you never will achieve a true learning organization if you "push" content at people. The information must be available for people to access at the point of use, or when they need it. According to the CCL, the amount of classroom-based, instructor-led training in U.S. companies has recently dropped below 50 percent, accompanied by a rise in virtual classroom events and online self-study (O'Leonard, 2013). This means that the participants are in control of their learning experience, optimizing the empowerment and engagement for which we strive.

What Have I Learned?

I have become a believer in a blended model of delivering training content. This was difficult for me, as there is nothing I love more than delivering in-classroom instruction. I believe that classroom trainers who push content at participants constantly have to focus on what the participants learn and are able to apply, and not simply the amount and quality of content delivered to them in the classroom. 

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, "Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I will learn."

Kent Hatcher, B.S., M.S., CPE, is director of business development for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Humantech Inc.  

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