by Katherine Torres
If Timothy Hjermstad ever was concerned that the safety training he was providing for employees was going in one ear and out the other, he soon found out that such worries were unfounded.
A year and a half ago, Hjermstad, Constar International's director of corporate safety, sent a couple of his foremen out to a construction site to help out employees from another contractor in an electrical contracting-related activity. During the middle of the day, one of the contractor's employees, who was on a rooftop, fell 50 feet to the ground. One of Hjermstad's foremen rushed to help the injured man by administering CPR, a skill he picked up while taking one of Hjermstad's first aid courses.
Although the contractor's employee died, Hjermstad takes comfort in knowing that his foreman did all he could do save the man's life using one of the skills taught in the company's safety training program.
"It made me feel good because they remembered what I was teaching them, which is nice," he reflects.
Examples such as this are the reason why an increasing number of companies are realizing that effective safety training is vital to their organization, not only because it impacts the health and safety of their employees but also because of the impact it makes on their bottom line.
According to safety experts, safety training is needed by both new and seasoned employees because it serves as a reminder that dangers always exist and accidents can occur no matter how experienced the workers are at their jobs.
But while most, if not all, companies agree on the basic principles behind safety training, the approaches used vary greatly between organizations. Some prefer the online method while others are proponents of classroom teaching and the use of hands-on training.
Most companies and safety experts, though, agree that since it is important for students to be engaged in workplace safety training, whichever method used should have an interactive design. Companies choose one method of training over another depending on the needs of their organizations, their employees and the hazards found in their industries.
The Flexibility of Online Training
Hjermstad, for instance, says he has become more of a proponent of online safety training to augment the classroom and hands-on education the company offers. Having an online component facilitates training for employees who have to work outside of the company's main offices in Norwood, Mass., Hjermstad says, since it wouldn't be practical for them to travel long distances to sit in a classroom for a couple of hours.
"Web training is a great tool for the future," he says. "Because there are computers everywhere, our guys out in the field could get their courses done without spending time traveling to a classroom where they learn the same thing."
Although Web training has been used at Constar International for only 1 year, Hjermstad says the program already offers 36 courses and the company has decided to roll out the online component for 5 additional years with the help of PureSafety, a company that specializes in providing online training solutions to companies in a number of industries.
Shane Austin, PureSafety's safety and risk specialist, says he believes online training is an ideal method to keep workers engaged in the material that is being taught while not disrupting their normal work schedules. Employees can take the courses whenever time permits and wherever they have Internet access.
In addition, Austin says the interactivity online training offers is invaluable, as the employee will have the ability to participate in a Q&A exercise to test his or her knowledge after completing each 5-minute section of the course. This way, workers always are kept on their toes and will be more attentive to the information that is being provided, Austin explains.
"Some classroom trainers have dynamic styles of teaching that keep people engaged, but nine times out of 10 - with 20 to 30 people in the audience - they are just pointing out bullet points from an overhead projector," he says. "So it can get a little monotonous in a classroom."
As much as Austin believes that online training is a great method of teaching, he does admit that it's not the "end-all be-all." To learn how to operate machinery such as a forklift, there are certain principles OSHA requires an employee to know about the physics of the apparatus, and the worker also has to go through a driving test - things that they're not able to do by taking an online course.
"There is obviously the need for the hands-on approach for these types of cases," he acknowledges.
The Classroom Approach
Some safety experts point out that a vital component missing in workplace safety online training is the hands-on mentoring often found in the field and even in a classroom setting. And while Hjermstad and Austin sing the praises of Web-based training, Terry Krug, a senior safety and health instructor with the OSHA Training Institute (OTI), claims that online training only works if it complements other methods of training.
"The Web portion is more of an introductory type of methodology and students seem to want to go through it quickly and are not interested in learning it forever," explains Krug. "When we get them in class, we try to help them understand the concepts, not just disseminate information to them."
OTI, which has been in existence since not long after OSHA was established, is in charge of training the agency's compliance officers utilizing classroom instruction, which lasts from 1 to 2 weeks. Some courses do have a Web component, Krug says, but it is used as a precursor to enable the student to understand basic principles before going into the nuts and bolts of the course. For instance, in one of the core courses OTI offers, workers can learn about the history of OSHA, the OSH Act and its sections online before going into the classroom component.
Compliance officers in training, according to Krug, are much happier and have better content retention when they attend a workshop or get their hands around a piece of machinery. He acknowledges that online training is a more cost-effective way to get a large group of employees together for a course. One pitfall in this method, though, is that workers lose the hands-on learning effect that they get when working with a piece of equipment or having a one-on-one interaction with the instructor, he says.
"I think there needs to be a blend in which if an online component is needed, to add it with a hands-on method of learning," he says.
A blended approach to learning is the type of training method DuPont Safety Resources, a large department within DuPont, named one of American's Safest Companies in 2003, has adopted when it comes to training customersworldwide as well as its own employees.
Bonnie Swan, DuPont Safety Resources' safety instructor, shies away from stating if one training method is better than another, since she claims it depends if a supervisor wants their employee to develop a certain skill. The use of blended learning - a combination of self-study, field application and group meetings - would be most applicable for skill development, she says, as it enables employees to work on their own while developing those skills.
Learning hasn't been dull at DuPont since the company developed an interactive and participatory mode of training called the "Discovery Method," in which employees analyze and apply information they learn, reflect on the content and apply it to their job functions. Very little of the training involves lectures and Powerpoint presentations, explains Swan, and the goal is to have at least 70 percent of the classroom learning conducted in groups.
Swan says that "some forms of classroom learning, especially the type that we employ, can be as participatory and more interactive than online training, where the person is just reading information and answering questions on a computer screen."
Knowing Your Audience and Hazards
Regardless of which method of training is employed, there are certain key points employers have to keep in mind when training their workers.
According to Swan, it is important to not only recognize a client's needs but who the clients are.
As DuPont offers training and product services to companies around the globe that have different perceptions of and requirements for safety training, safety instructors like Swan encounter situations in which they need to tweak their approaches in order to make training effective.
The work force in a country may be uncomfortable with more interactive methods of learning such as role-playing, for example, and may just prefer to sit and listen to an expert lecture about the subject. "When working with people around the world, we have a basic delivery model that is adjusted to the learning style of the country we are working in and the level of education their employees have," Swan says.
Determining which method to use also is contingent on the industry the employee works in and the hazards they face on a daily basis, according to David Milligan, director of the Texas Extension Services (TEEX) - one of OSHA's 19 education centers created to provide training to all types of private industries. He says that the approach used in safety training should be based on the following assessments:
- Assess the hazards.
- Assess the employees' needs.
- Assess the code of law.
Since different industries experience different hazards, not all of the workers take the same type of safety courses at TEEX, although there are certain core classes they all have to take, such as recordkeeping.
"Training should be tailored for the specific hazards that exist in each workplace," he says. "For example, ergonomics training would be applicable for the U.S. Postal Service because they handle a lot of mail delivery, but wouldn't really apply to someone working in the construction industry."
In addition, Milligan echoes Hjermstad's sentiment that online training may make sense for companies that have employees stationed in different locations around the country, which is why Milligan says he believes that the approach used depends on the employers and employees' situation and needs. Milligan also points out that that employers offering safety training courses should understand the code of law as it applies to their business because it prescribes certain training their employees need to take.
Making it Close and Personal
Milligan has found the most effective way to convey the importance of safety training is to tap into his audience's emotions and/or emphasize the bottom line.
He cites a session on crane safety during which he shared a newspaper article about a 15-year-old who was killed in a crane accident while working with his father. Milligan says this example brought the message home to many of the workers attending the class because it was something to which they could relate, as many either were in a similar line of work or had children of their own.
By the same token, employees will get the point when a trainer tells them that an increased rate of accidents and injuries potentially could make their insurance costs rise or result in fewer benefits, as employers try to save money.
"If you get them (workers) to discuss their concerns in the workplace and allow them to discuss courses of action to improve their safety practices, that's how you get them going and capture their interest," Milligan explains.
He adds that personalizing the safety messages doesn't have to be used strictly in classrooms. At TEEX, recent press clippings, photographs of real people and workplace scenarios are used in online courses to make them relevant to the worker.
But one important element is that safety training should continue as long as employees work for the company, regardless of how long those employees have worked there, Milligan points out.
"Laws change, technologies change, hazards change and your employees change," he asserts. "Safety professionals and employees need refresher training, continuation training and update training. Just because you've trained once doesn't mean you won't forget it."