The Evolution of Workplace Training

Sept. 1, 2008
In the beginning, if you handed someone a shovel to dig a ditch and told him how deep it should be, your worker had been officially "trained." There were no instructions given regarding technique, no terms like "sloping" and "trench box" to learn, no personal protective equipment issued – and no reports to file.

Those may have been simpler times, but they were definitely not safer times, nor more productive times. In fact, while it is often tempting to romanticize the past, an objective look at the history of the workplace tells a tale of continuous improvements, especially when it comes to safety. Similarly, the desire for safer, more productive workplaces has led to a constant evolution in training methods and tools. Each generation finds new, more efficient ways to reduce workplace injuries while ensuring that workers understand and use best practices for their industry.

Leveraging the power of new technologies and the Internet has accelerated this evolution. But when it comes to safety and productivity, there can be no “resting on our laurels.” Safety professionals must be vigilant in monitoring the changing needs of their industries and organizations, while also integrating (and in some cases helping to develop) new solutions that improve the efficiency and results of their programs.

In this article, we’ll look at some current challenges facing safety professionals, and how training methods and tools are evolving to meet those challenges. But before we think about where safety training is going, we’ll start with a quick review of where it’s been. Clearly, there were no overnight transitions, though we’ve come a long way in the span of a single lifetime. The more important point is that the evolution of training is an ongoing process – one in which we all participate.

A Brief History of Training

The earliest training efforts revolved around on-the-job experience. If you were lucky, you worked with at least one seasoned veteran who took you under his wing and guided you in proper techniques and the tricks of the trade. If you weren’t lucky, well, training was probably a matter of trial-and-error, and your best protection against injury was common sense. In either case, before World War II, the types of formal workplace training programs that now are commonplace were very rare.

The cultural shift toward more formal training really began in the 1950s. Most significantly during this period, many high schools began to incorporate vocational or “trade” courses into their curriculums. The practice of teaching young adults physical job skills in a structured learning environment became the norm, and began to carry over to some workplaces. Still, the concept of safety, while an underlying motivation, was typically not a main focal point.

That trend really takes off in the 1970s, as OSHA and other regulatory entities came into existence and became increasingly influential in defining – and enforcing – a wide range of safety standards and industry practices. While this standardization brought positive changes to the workplace, it also brought many challenges. Even companies that already had fairly strong training programs suddenly found themselves required to comply with new rules that came from outside the company rather than from an internal assessment of what would work best. Even more vexing to some, employers weren’t simply told to hand out a list of federally mandated safety practices – they also were tasked with putting programs in place to enforce, monitor and report compliance with such practices.

This is the beginning of the “modern” era of training, and many challenges that appeared in the 1970s continue to affect employers and safety professionals. For example, consider the 1970s workplace: At that time, the American workforce consisted of people who had persevered through the Great Depression, World War II veterans in their fifties, and young Baby Boomers who had come of age in the 1960s. There were significant differences in the values, general attitudes and learning styles of these generations – and one shortcoming of early training methods was that they tended to have a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

The most common scenario involved one individual lecturing a group of workers, perhaps handing out a list of rules, and then telling them to go back to work. Time for questions and clarifications was rare – and little thought was given to the idea that training should be personally engaging, or customized for different audiences.

While the makeup of today’s workforce is very different from the 1970s, it probably is even more demographically diverse. That is just one of the obstacles that training programs must address in order to maximize workplace safety and productivity.

Fortunately, training practices and training tools steadily have evolved to help safety professionals overcome these challenges. There is no single best solution, of course – but today’s safety professionals have a much larger training toolkit from which to choose. Traditional instructor-led classroom sessions still exist, but between the 1970s and now, we’ve also seen the development of training videos (from VCR to DVD to online), PowerPoint presentations, computer-based training, Internet-based training, simulations, games and more.

But to choose the right tools, we first have to know what challenges today’s safety professionals need to overcome. In the sections below, we’ll discuss a few of the most prominent challenges.

Challenge 1: Differing Learning Styles

Most of us are now familiar with terms like “visual” and ”auditory” learners. When presented with important information, some people must see it to truly understand it. Once they have a visual, everything falls into place. Others can simply read the information, or have it read to them, and their brain absorbs it like a sponge. Still others require a more interactive environment – the more they have to do the better they learn.

The important point – and challenge – is that people have different ways of learning. Relying on a single traditional training method may work for some, but be ineffective for others. The good news is that technology has made it easier than ever to accommodate multiple learning styles.

Challenge 2: Generation Gaps

Just as in the 1970s, the modern workforce is made up of distinct generations with different values, attitudes and ways of learning. The Baby Boomers increasingly are the “senior” generation – the largest and most powerful in our nation’s history. Behind them is Generation X, a much smaller demographic that has had the challenge of competing with those Baby Boomers while also responding as adults to profound shifts like the greater expectation for college and advanced degrees and the Internet revolution.

The youngest members of the workforce alternately are dubbed Generation Y, Nexters or Echo Boomers. Regardless of the label, what is striking about this group is that many grew up with computers from a very early age – they are the first generation for whom the Internet, mobile phones and other high technology is the “norm,” rather than a radical change.

Each of the groups above leans toward their own style of digesting information. At the older end of the spectrum, there still is a preference for traditional training methods.

Younger workers are more likely to expect a technology-enhanced, interactive learning experience. The good news here is that in the past 30-plus years, much research and thought has gone into determining the different ways that adults learn, and into developing training methods and tools that bridge not only generation gaps but all learning style gaps. And again, the Internet is making it easier and more affordable for businesses to deliver training solutions that will reach the broadest range of people.

Challenge 3: Language and Literacy Barriers

The United States still lives up to its reputation as a “melting pot” – with some sources estimating that up to 15 percent of the workforce consists of individuals who were not born here. Many of these individuals have limited understanding of English and rely heavily on their native tongue. Additionally, the trend of globalization means that more and more U.S. companies are expanding abroad – and more international companies are buying U.S. companies or opening U.S. locations. The result is a truly diverse, multilingual workforce.

So how does an employer communicate training objectives and ideas to a multilingual workforce? Some choose to employ bilingual trainers, but that approach can become challenging and costly when you have to account for three, four, five or more different languages.

Employers also must consider that, even among native English speakers, it is estimated that 20 percent or more of the U.S. workforce is functionally illiterate. Such workers may have a limited ability to read and write, but not enough to fully comprehend the average safety pamphlet or training manual. Like their non-English-speaking coworkers, they can’t be reached effectively if the written word is the only training vehicle.

Clearly, language and literacy presents not one, but many challenges. A great deal of planning is required to accommodate those with different languages and different levels of literacy. Cost also must be factored in – traditional training materials can be extremely costly and time-consuming to translate into each new language that your company encounters.

Challenge 4: Training Consistency

One drawback to traditional, instructor-based training methods is that all trainers are not created equal. And, even if an organization invests considerable resources to create consistent programs and presentation materials, the effectiveness of the training will vary from trainer to trainer.

Different supervisors working from the same program directives and notes may interpret information differently, emphasize different points or even leave out key information. When it comes to safety, mixed messages create a plethora of problems, including increasing the employer’s vulnerability to compliance and liability issues.

Challenge 5: Turnover and Absenteeism

Turnover is a constant challenge for many companies. Employees leave, positions quickly must be filled and personnel must be shuffled into new roles to meet changing needs.

Ensuring that people in new roles receive the appropriate training in a timely fashion can be difficult and costly if your program relies on scheduled classroom training. In such cases, training may get pushed aside until the next regularly scheduled session, potentially leaving a long training gap. Similarly, companies that plan group training sessions months in advance inevitably must cope with those who don’t show up due to illness or vacation. Whether in the interests of compliance, worker safety, improved productivity or all of the above, many employers who are faced with high turnover rates are shifting to Web-based training solutions because training can be given “on demand,” making it easier and more cost-effective to ensure that every worker is trained appropriately.

Challenge 6: Regulatory Compliance Issues

One of the most frustrating scenarios for employers is to spend significant resources to implement a training curriculum – then find out that regulatory changes have made parts of the program outdated and out-of-compliance. Similarly, companies with international operations must cope with the fact that what is U.S.-compliant may need significant changes to be compliant in other countries. In our highly regulated and litigious era, compliance oversights, however unintentional, can be costly.

Companies must have systems in place not only to stay abreast of regulatory changes but also to promptly update and distribute training materials.

Challenge 7: Environmental, Social and Corporate Responsibility

One of the most recent and increasingly powerful trends impacting EHS professionals is the pressure – both regulatory and cultural – to “do the right thing.” From sustainability initiatives to tracking environmental impact to governance issues, companies are doing more to be good corporate citizens and, in particular, seeking greater transparency. The latter is not merely an ethical issue. When different departments, locations or divisions of an organization openly share best practices, there are incredible opportunities to improve efficiency. Here again, the trend favors Internet-based training delivery and management solutions that make it easier to track, report and share information both internally and externally.

Evolving Solutions

Internet-based training solutions can play a prominent role in overcoming each of the challenges discussed above. And in terms of the evolution of training, it is hard to imagine a future in which technology-based training solutions will not be increasingly critical. That’s not exactly a radical statement given the importance of Web-based systems in all areas of business. But the move toward interactive online training tools can be traced to some very specific advantages:

  • Content that appeals to multiple learning styles – Listening, reading, personal interactivity … it’s all there.
  • Consistency of message – Everyone gets identical information. You never have to wonder if your trainer covered all the key points.
  • Multilingual training – Cost-effective solutions already available in multiple languages.
  • Easy to update – If compliance issues or best practices change, you quickly can edit existing materials.
  • Prompt training for all employees – Vacation and sick days are no longer a problem. Workers complete training whenever and wherever they have access to a computer. New hire training and cross-training can be implemented whenever necessary.
  • Transparency – All training automatically is tracked, and records document that workers comprehended the content.

Of course, there will continue to be an important place for a variety of training methods, including personal instructors, PowerPoint presentations, hand-outs, etc., each of which has its own unique advantages. Rather, the evolution of training is toward a blended solution that integrates the best of the traditional and online methods.

The other constant in the evolution of training is simply this: the desire for greater safety, cost-efficiency and productivity that distinguishes our field will continue to drive innovation at every level.

Shane Austin, CSP, is the director of safety and risk management at PureSafety, a leading provider of online safety training and risk management software solutions. Shane can be reached for questions or comments at (615) 277-3123 or [email protected].

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