Thought Leadership


The greatest threat to safety might be your safety training

April 3, 2013
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ISHN Guest BlogTo assert that most safety training sucks is to reveal no great insight; it’s practically an O’Henry short story: training professionals steer clear of safety courses for fear they might miss some important point and imperil the learners and safety professionals lack the requisite knowledge of knowledge of adult education to construct an effective course.

The result is well-intentioned organizations wasting millions annually on weak safety training that not only doesn’t protect workers; it puts them at risk.

There are a couple of basic things you have to decide whether you believe or not before you can draw any accurate conclusion. First, you either believe that safety training protects workers or you do not. (It’s something of a mute point, because in most countries safety training is required.  It’s not required to be good mind you it’s just required that people complete it.) Second, you either believe existing safety training is sufficient or it is not.

Researchers in adult learning paint a fairly bleak picture of training in general.  Research has shown that up to 85% of the skills learned in training courses are lost before they ever has a chance of making it to the workplace, and further research shows that no skills taught in a class are retained unless the skills are applied within 48 hours of the course.

Training v. teaching

Before we continue I should make something clear. I use the term “training” not “learning” not “teaching” and not “education”.

I know some people bristle at the term, “you train dogs, not people” but I was taught the difference between teaching and training through the following analogy: “you might be in favor of your sixth grade daughter receiving sex education in school, but you probably don’t want her getting sex training”. 

Some of you might be offended by that example (lighten up) but I think it creates a visceral mental image of the precise difference between training and teaching. As far as I’m concerned, education is learning ABOUT something and training is learning how to DO something.

This distinction has profound implications in worker safety. Safety professionals pull their hair out in frustration, concoct elaborate schemes, and tilt at ludicrous organizational windmills in an effort to influence, motivate, coerce and cajole workers into working safely, when I put it to you these workers were never taught to work safely, they were taught ABOUT working safely.  

This might sound like I’m playing semantic games here, but think about it. What do people learn how to DO in a hazard communication course? That’s not to say that safety education isn’t important, and awareness too, while we’re at it, but if we want people to change how they behave—and despite whatever position you take on behavior and its relationship to safety I think we can all agree that safe behavior and good decision making is an essential to a safer workplace—we have to first give them the skills they need to behave safely.

This distinction also lies at the heart of why so few safety professionals, academics, and consultants have any real credibility with workers. Credibility is only really gained when a person knows how to DO the job, irrespective of how much the person knows ABOUT the job. 

Experts don't always make great trainers

This creates a problem for safety training; many decision makers assume that subject matter experts will make great trainers because they will have so much more credibility with the learners. Of course not all grizzled veterans are horrible trainers, but many are really bad at teaching people the skills they need to do a job. Any time I have endured a training course on any subject where the instructor takes pains to brag about his or her having spent 87 years doing blah, blah, blah…I knew I was in for long, pointless class.

The secret to better safety training starts with a professional designed course. I’ve explored that topic in greater detail in previous articles and blog posts so I won’t go into it much here, except to say that a well-designed course is like having a concrete plan for imparting the skills; a “learning road map,” if you will. The development of the course requires two kinds of expertise: expertise in the content, and expertise in adult learning. There are no short cuts to this formula. If you try to cut corners you will end up not only wasting time and money, but potentially putting workers at risk.

But a professionally developed course is only the start. The delivery of quality safety training is every bit as specific and important a skill as any other. Just because someone LIKES to present in front of a group or that fancy themselves a trainer. 

A good safety trainer should be an expert in the discipline of training. Of course the instructor has to have credibility in the content, but that doesn’t mean that the instructor has to have complete mastery of the subject and have 150 years doing the work.

In the best classes, either a subject matter expert has been given training in presentation skills or is teamed with an experienced trainer. But too often those charged with ensuring that courses are delivered simply trust the subject matter expert to “pull together a course” or worse yet, trust them to deliver the “course” they’ve been regurgitating for years.

The importance of core skills

As I’ve said in so many other posts, the best safety training isn’t the regulatory training most of tend to think of when people mention safety training. Rather the most important safety training is effective core skills training. Unfortunately, this training tends to be even worse than regulatory training and is even less formal than the worst regulatory training out there. This is where things get dangerous, if we don’t provide quality training in how to do the tasks required of a job the workers will figure out a way to do it, and the way they find to do it will be the most lasting learning. It’s tough to unlearn something that you learned from your own experience and even tougher to change those behaviors.

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