Top 10 Tips for More Effective EHS Training

Feb. 1, 2009
Take your training methods from blah to brilliant with these 10 tips.

You've just settled in for a safety training session. The instructor greets the class, distributes some hand-outs and begins teaching. No, wait. He's reading. From a 20-page, single-spaced document. Without pausing or looking up. Worse, he's showing no signs of stopping.

That scenario can be taken from the nightmares of students enrolled in EHS training everywhere. So how do you break the cycle of boring, bland or just plain bad training methods? EHS Today spoke with some experts in the field to discover their top training tips.


This was, by far, the point experts hit on most: structuring the course in a deliberate, focused way will guide both the students and instructor through the training smoothly and efficiently.

“You need to have a blueprint,” explains Judy Jarrell, Ph.D., the director of health and safety training at the University of Cincinnati. “You need to have some kind of plan to follow.”

Learning objectives, Jarrell continues, should focus on what the student needs to know or be able to perform after the training is complete. If the training is meant to show students how to use fall protection equipment, for example, they should be able to independently execute the entire process of donning and using a fall harness by the conclusion of the course without any outside assistance. Without a plan, trainers might have a more difficult time getting their students to that point.

“Learning objectives will focus us as trainers,” Jarrell says. She also suggests sharing those objectives with the students to set their expectations and take away any anxiety.

Tom Ouimet, CIH, founder and principal of OEHS2, agrees that trainers must start with good instructional design. Unfortunately, he says, some EHS trainers open a standards book and teach the information they find there, in the order it appears in the book — first definitions, then exposure limits, and so on. There's no faster way to put the class to sleep.

“Organize your training material around a mental model the worker knows and understands,” he suggests. “So organize their material in sequence of how they do their job. That makes it easier for them to assimilate the information.”


This tip goes hand-in-hand with developing learning objectives because it's difficult to map out the progression and structure of a course without understanding your audience. Learning objectives, Jarrell says, must focus “first and foremost on what the needs are for that particular group of learners.”

According to Shane Austin, CSP, PureSafety's director of safety and risk management, PureSafety first determines the target audience for a course, whether it's upper-level management, a foreman group or workers in the field. After establishing the audience, he says, trainers then can turn to applicable regulations and standards to develop what needs to be covered in the course.

“Start with knowing your people and where they are,” Jarrell says. “Be sure you know your trainees well enough to know how much information they have already so we can build on it.”

That also means recognizing when a topic isn't vital to your group of learners. An OSHA 10-hour outreach course may require trainers to cover fall protection, but if this particular group of trainees never works at height, it's not as imperative for them to have in-depth training. Instead, Jarrell says, use the required time period on this topic to raise awareness on the issue, and then move on to something more relevant.


Trainers must concentrate on more than just conveying the information — they also have to be aware of how students' attitudes can affect their ability to learn.

“In our kind of training, attitudes are a big deal,” Jarrell says. “That is what's going to determine, once [students] are back on the job, whether or not they employ the safe work practices that you're teaching them.”

Jarrell goes on to stress that students are not born with their attitudes; they learn them. “We learn attitudes, and so we as instructors can have some impact on it,” she points out. “I'm not going to say we can change attitudes in 10 hours, but we can move them along that continuum a little bit to a more positive attitude toward employing the safe work practices that you're teaching.”


Students who are bored, passive or apathetic won't learn as much. And that means the important safety skills covered in the training won't transfer to their work. “You have to engage the learner,” stresses Austin.

He says that in typical classroom training, some students naturally will be active and involved, while others may sit quietly in the corner, disinterested. But in online training, he points out, “you're actually forced to be engaged. There's no hiding.” PureSafety online courses include brain teasers and other interactive elements to prompt each student to become involved in the training.

Ouimet adds that some trainers tend to drone on without interaction. “I think with adults, you've got to create good opportunities for them to participate and talk about their experiences,” he says. Some trainers, he notes, are fearful of losing control of a presentation, and therefore don't encourage participation.

“But if it's set up well and the presenter has good skills, you can direct that experience [to] reinforce a key point,” he explains. “And since it's coming from a peer, it's often better accepted.”


No one relishes the thought of having an instructor stand at the front of the classroom and do nothing but lecture for two hours. Visual aids are an important component of training and can help clarify and enhance the curriculum.

“It must be visually relatable, whether in classroom or online,” Austin says of EHS training. Jarrell adds that visuals can make the instruction clear; without that clarity, students will not learn.

Ouimet cautions that not just any visuals will do — they must be the right visuals, used in the right way. “When you create visual evidence, it has to be very specific,” he says. “Don't use it as a distracter.” Overloading on visuals, he explains, can be confusing and disorienting.

Ouimet also suggests the assertion-evidence approach, a technique he says the profession hasn't yet fully embraced. Instead of using a PowerPoint slide with a title and then a bulleted list, this approach uses visual evidence to support an assertion. The assertion — such as “Flammable solvents ignite below 73 degrees,” is placed where the title would go, and then the rest of the slide shows a video of solvents exploding. This focuses the students on one key concept and demonstrates that it is correct. According to Ouimet, research shows this approach is “significantly better at conveying information than a traditional PowerPoint bullet-point slide.”

“It's important to create a rich experience for people,” he explains. “And a rich experience involves good visuals.”


If variety is the spice of life, then some presenters have been serving nothing but oatmeal for a long time. To obtain the all-important training goal of engagement, instructors must vary their teaching methods.

“You have to have variety in your training. That helps engagement,” Jarrell says.

That means not relying on only a lecture backed up with a PowerPoint presentation for 4 straight hours. Brain teasers and interactive questions and situations can help break up online training, according to Austin. Ouimet points out that using case studies as a training method can be interesting for students because the different format draws students in and allows them to predict what happened in real cases.

The bottom line is that trainers must mix it up throughout the course to keep students on track and to help them learn and retain as much as possible.


One way to keep students engaged is to entertain them. Just keep in mind that at the end of the day, this is still a classroom.

“Humor is always helpful, [but] it has to be controlled,” Jarrell says. “It has to go toward the learning objective.”

Some instructors use games, such as jeopardy or monopoly, that test students on the safety issues they're learning about in class. Others show funny (but on topic) videos. But the entertainment always must be focused on the ultimate task on hand — educating the trainees.

“I know the difference between entertaining and teaching,” Jarrell says. “There is a lot of entertaining in teaching, yes. You need someone up there to keep them awake, engaged in the process. But if that's all you do, you're not teaching. Teaching changes that person by the time they leave.”

Hands-on portions of the class, such as teaching students to use personal protective equipment, can be entertainming and grab a student's attention.

“As long as the fun leads to learning, I'm all for it,” Jarrell says.


Just as entertainment must have a purpose in the classroom, so must any videos or other fancy features trainers incorporate into the class.

“The real failures I see right now are people try to insert media for the sake of inserting media when it really doesn't have anything to do with the key concept they're trying to get across,” Ouimet says. “Therefore, it's simply distracting.”

Various media are available today to EHS trainers, and they can be very helpful if used judiciously. Ouimet says short video segments can help demonstrate specific tasks, such as showing a certain operation or how PPE is used for a particular job. But not all safety training videos are created equal.

“Too often in our field, folks slide in a video that may be 20 minutes long that's often very generic,” he says, which causes students to quickly stop paying attention. “Then, a lot of trainers won't talk about how it specifically applies to their facility. So you're left with generic mush.”

Finally, technology is not a catch-all for training; the instructor still has a job to do.

“Too often, we just present information at workers, and then expect them to take that, think about how it applies to their work, and then apply it,” Ouimet says. “That's a huge hurdle. We as safety professionals should understand their job and present it in a way they understand it best.”


This step is two-fold: your trainees should understand why they specifically need to learn these skills or this knowledge, as well as how the consequences of unsafe behaviors will impact their own lives. In short, trainers need to answer the students' “What's in it for me?” question.

“You must answer that question or you might as well pack up your things and go home,” Jarrell stresses. “You must tell them how it applies to them and why they must learn it.”

Austin and Ouimet agree that sharing real-life scenarios involving workplace incidents can have a big impact on trainees. Short video clips describing the consequences of an accident on a worker's life can be very effective, Ouimet says. And Austin points out that showing “average, everyday Joes” talking about how taking a safety shortcut affected not only their own lives, but those of their friends and families, can be compelling. It makes them realize it's “not just about me, but about everyone around me,” he explains.

“There are some [videos] that have been compiled very professionally,” Austin says. “They paint a picture in thought-provoking way, not a gory way.”


Finally, sometimes you have to take the focus off your students and put it on yourself.

“An effective trainer is not born,” Jarrell says. “Just because you can do the job doesn't mean you can communicate it to someone else.”

Austin agrees, pointing out that sometimes even the most knowledgeable EHS professionals don't have the knack for teaching the skills they know so well to others.

“There's a lot to be said for having trainers actually go through some professional training seminars,” he says. “Taking the time to get professional skills training is a worthwhile investment for any trainer.”

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