Preaching or Teaching: The Use of Narrative in Safety Training

April 13, 2005
Narrative storytelling can be an effective way to impart useful safety and health information to employees without insulting them or putting them to sleep.

When I turned 16, I signed up for a driver's education class at my high school. We had hours of classroom education, hours of simulator training and a few scarce minutes of hands-on time behind the wheel of a car. All of it was boring and forgettable, except for the time spent behind the wheel. That's because Mr. Kelly, the driver's ed teacher, was a screamer, and he scared me a little bit.

Then, the final day of class, we watched a movie, a docudrama that was based on a true event. We saw four high school friends, all our age and dressed like us, getting ready for the prom. "Judy" was the driver, blond and blue-eyed, just like me. Judy decided to brush her hair while driving, got distracted and caused a terrible crash that killed two of her friends and seriously injured herself and the other occupant of the car. The filmmakers interviewed the real Judy, who was slowly recovering from her physical injuries but would never recover from her emotional trauma.

To this day, when I'm driving, I don't fiddle with my hair, my makeup or anything else in the car.

That film utilized storytelling to capture my attention. As a result, I remember it to this day and chose to drive in a safe manner.

All of which proves the point of Elaine Cullen, Ph.D., CMSP: Narrative is an effective tool to help educate employees.

"We are storytellers in this country. There is an oral tradition among what I call the skilled blue collar workers: miners, foundry workers, construction workers, deep sea fishermen, the military. You learn by working with someone who knows how to do your job. You are an apprentice. You are mentored. And one of the ways they mentor you is by telling you stories," says Cullen, who is chief of Health Communication at NIOSH's Spokane Research Laboratory and an award-winning filmmaker.

For the past 6 years, Cullen has researched the use of narrative in training for miners, a group that arguably receives some of the most intensive safety training in the country. New underground miners receive 40 hours of safety training. Surface miners receive 24 hours of safety training. And every miner receives 8 hours of refresher training every year.

"The miners hate it," says Cullen. "They call it 'safety jail.' They go because they have to go and they don't pay attention."

Seven years ago, Cullen was asked to come up with better training techniques. What she found, by talking to miners, is that many of them effectively use stories and narrative to teach younger miners safe behavior. "All of them know someone or know of someone who has paid dearly for a moment of inattention," notes Cullen. She adds that when an experienced miner sees a new hire doing something really stupid, he often steps in and says, "Let me tell you a story. I had a new hand do something like that before ... " and he goes on to detail some negative consequence ranging from injury to death. Sometimes the stories are true, sometimes they're not. But they're always effective, says Cullen.

"The kid doesn't have to defend his behavior because no one was talking about his behavior. He learns that he was lucky not to be injured and that not everyone is so lucky and the next time, he could be on the wrong end of the equation," she notes.

Stories, she adds, provide powerful tools that straight instruction does not. They offer a way to organize information. Stories are remembered long after questions in a textbook are forgotten. In addition, they work their magic not only on the head, but on the heart. They draw you into the learning and allow you to place yourself in that situation.

"Narrative used in training keeps learners involved," agrees Hank Payne, Ph.D., director of the Office of Training and Education, OSHA. "You ask a class, 'Who's experienced a trench cave-in? What was it like? What did you do?' It's a way to get people in a classroom to share experiences that you as an instructor might not have. No one person has all the answers."

A Tool in the Toolbox

While the use of narrative and storytelling can serve to keep employees engaged in the training process, Payne notes that classroom instruction knowledge of procedures, rules and regulations is important, as is hands-on training, or as Payne likes to call it, psychomotor experience. Using the example of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), he says, "'Motor' is the doing the CPR part. 'Psycho' is the when do you do it, why do you do it and when do you stop doing it part."

When an employee is learning a new skill, safety information or job, he or she needs more than the motivation a first-person account or a story can provide, says Payne. Employees need to learn in a supervised environment, where they can receive coaching and feedback. Narrative alone won't provide a well-rounded education. "You need a mixed approach to training. There is no silver bullet to solve all your [training] challenges," says Payne.

When employees are learning a new task or skill, offer them the opportunity to practice it, he counsels. "I'd hate for a medical student to read about a good example of brain surgery in a textbook or talk about the experience of performing brain surgery, then have the first time they perform brain surgery to be on me," he says. "Practice on one or two or five cadavers. Participate [in the procedure] with more experienced surgeons."

However, he says, even in this example, narrative has its place: "A surgeon can say, 'I've done it 10 times and every time it's different.' That helps the medical student develop a strategy for dealing with different situations if they come up."

Locus of Control

People with an internal locus of control believe that their own actions determine the rewards they obtain, while those with an external locus of control believe that their own behavior doesn't matter much and that what happens to them is generally outside of their control.

There are two ways to alter behavior, says Cullen. You can force employees to start or stop doing something by teaching them rules and regulations and holding the threat of termination or other disciplinary measures over their heads if those rules and regulations are not followed. That places the locus of control outside the employees. Once the "safety cop" walks away, the employee might stop working in a safe manner because it was not his or her decision to work that way in the first place.

If you want to change employees' behavior, Cullen says, "You have to change their hearts." The way to do that, she adds, is to create a learning environment that makes the locus of control internal, so that changes to behavior are self-motivated. The use of narrative, to personalize learning, can help shift that locus of control from external to internal. Rather than "preaching at employees, you are teaching them," says Cullen.

Making the locus of control internal is especially effective in strong occupational cultures such as mining, deep sea fishing, firefighting and construction, she notes. In those occupations, you often find generation after generation doing the same job. Fathers mentor sons, and pass along their work practices, both good and bad.

"Job practices in those occupations are viewed through the cultural lens. If the cultural lens says only sissies wear safety glasses, then the new guys won't want to wear them," says Cullen. But, if "Old Joe" was wearing his safety glasses one day and something flew at his eye and the safety gear saved his eyesight, then the cultural opinion of PPE changes. "If you can get Old Joe to talk about his experience, then the other workers will view that as a credible source of information," says Cullen.

Using Humor

Narrative is often a good way to introduce humor into a learning environment, which makes training more fun, says Sue Leahy, president of Northeast American Safety in New Pulse, N.Y. She has instructed "everyone from CEOs to bus drivers who don't speak English to 60 physically challenged people" in CPR. "I was told that the people in a group home for the handicapped could not be taught," she says. "That was not true."

Her training style depends on whom she's teaching, she adds. When Leahy tells a group of firefighters taking a refresher course on first aid that butter is not a good treatment for burns, that her mother did that to her "and all she did was sauté me," the firefighters laugh. A class of high school students would probably look at her and say, "Huh?"

Leahy, president of the American Safety and Health Institute (ASHI), which is a non-profit group of safety and health educators, says that use of popular culture icons as examples sometimes helps get the message across, too. "I talk about responding to a BMX bike racing incident with a kid who had dislocated his shoulder. I tell the class, 'It looked like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. They get that.'"

But curtail the war stories, she adds. "Sometimes you'll get a group that starts recounting personal experiences, and before you know it, you've spent all your training time listening to war stories and not much time on education," she says.

When Narrative Backfires

So, you have decided to use narrative for a class you're teaching and you relate a story about how the proper use of lockout/tagout procedures saved a guy's life. And then you see everyone turn around and look at a worker in the back of the room who has a bandaged hand and you find out later he lost two fingers because he failed to de-energize a machine before he started performing maintenance on it.

Shame on you, says Payne. "A good teacher or trainer does their own homework. They know their audience. You ask the person requesting the training why they want to have it; whether there are issues in the workplace; was there an accident or fatality."

And, he adds, what happens when you ask an old-timer for his experience with a particular safety training topic such as hand protection and he proclaims he's been doing the job for 30 years and has never worn gloves and has never gotten so much as a blister, and maybe he's been violating an OSHA standard on top of it.

"You don't always know what people are going to share until they share it," Payne warns. And once they've said something that is the complete opposite of the message you're trying to send, you have to address the situation. "You have to try to turn it into a learning experience," counsels Payne. "You point out the potential hazard of doing it that way."

But, he adds, it's really a no-win situation where the worker who shared his experience is concerned. You're pointing out he's been doing his job incorrectly or unsafely. He's not going to thank you for it.

So, Payne says, be careful about asking blanket questions like "How do you do your job?" or even "What's the safe way to do this?" Focus instead on specifics, such as "Do you know someone whose life was saved because he was wearing a hard hat?" or "Have you ever been in a trench cave-in?"

Narrative can backfire in other ways as well, warns Marcie Thobaben, owner of Bluegrass Health & Safety. "You have to be careful not to make training too personal, too emotional. And you don't want workers relating stories that they might not feel comfortable having co-workers know. I had one guy, during a first aid class, announce that he had hepatitis C. His co-workers looked at him like he was a leper. Probably not a good idea to announce that."

Instead, she says she tries to relate the consequences of the unsafe behavior discussed in class to workers' personal lives. "I'll ask them what's their favorite hobby: fishing, church activities, sewing, gardening, playing ball with their kids, whatever. Then I'll say, 'Well, you can live without a hand if you lose it because the machine guard was removed, but will you be able to throw your kid a ball?' That personalizes it," says Thobaben.

OSHA's Payne agrees. "We learn best by doing, but narrative does a good job of framing the context of training," he says. "Classroom teaching is important. Hands-on learning is important. Narrative is important. One without the others is incomplete."

Sidebar: Telling a Story the Right Way

While narrative in training is a useful tool, occupational safety and health educator Marcie Thobaben offers these tips to help avoid potential pitfalls that could derail your training efforts:

1) Know your audience. Investigate the attendees and determine if a particular situation such as an incident or fatality was a catalyst for the training.

2) Never use offensive language or religious or political examples.

3) Always be aware of comments that could be construed as sexual harassment, whether they are made by you or someone in the class.

4) Be sensitive to issues related to weight and age.

5) Find ways to incorporate the personal experiences of workers to the training.

6) Leave on a positive note. Do not end the class with an image of death or destruction in the minds of employees.

7) Make certain that any personal stories you use relate to the training content. Getting off point will only confuse your audience.

For more information about training, visit our Employee Safety Training Safety Zone.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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