Before the COVID-19 pandemic affected almost every workplace in the country, online training was just another tool in the safety trainer’s tool chest. But since the pandemic has forced workplace closures, employee furloughs, social distancing, and a general rethinking of the way we do business, online training has become a vital method to accomplish necessary training.

OSHA’s April 16th enforcement memo* acknowledged the difficulties employers are experiencing because of COVID-19, including travel bans, restrictions on group sizes, stay-at-home orders, and limited availability of the contractors, consultants, or employees who usually provide on-site training. The memo, written for OSHA inspectors, explained that OSHA will take an employer’s efforts to comply with annual training requirements into account and evaluate whether the employer “made good faith efforts to comply with applicable OSHA standards.” This means that if you were unable to complete required training, you don’t allow untrained employees to be exposed to hazards from tasks, processes, or equipment.

In addition, OSHA will look to see if you have explored all the avenues open to you, which could include using virtual or online training options.


Pros and cons of traditional online learning

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that there are many ways to accomplish online training. The traditional online training module has the employee watch a video or PowerPoint presentation and answer quiz questions. The advantage to this type of learning platform is it provides uniform information to all employees. Once you create the material, you can share it with a large number of employees and know that they’re all getting the same message. Employees can learn at their own pace, stop the presentation if they need time to digest it or go back to review a difficult concept. You can easily track their scores on online quizzes and document that required training has been completed.

One of the main challenges to this type of online learning is OSHA’s requirement to tailor training programs to a particular job, including site-specific hazards, hazards unique to the equipment being used, and the personal protective equipment assigned to the task. Also, for many OSHA standards, the agency requires a qualified person to be available to answer employee questions.


Going beyond traditional online training

What if you could have all the benefits of virtual training and all the benefits of in-person classroom training? Now, with the enhanced capabilities of conferencing platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype, and many other choices, you can be “live” and still social distance. These platforms allow you to share your screen, answer questions as they arise, ask questions of your learners, encourage sharing among workers, and show short videos. You can try presenting training in a panel format made up of qualified trainers, competent employees, safety champions, and even special guests. Think about getting an expert in the field to help you present the training, or someone who has first-hand experience with your training topic.


Smorgasbord of online training ideas

You don’t have to stick with tradition. Here are a few creative ways to use online platforms for training:

  • Videos are a great way to get your message across. You can purchase professional videos, use OSHA-created videos, or develop your own demonstration videos on topics such as challenges with PPE fitting, disinfecting surfaces, walking on ice, or avoiding heat stress.
  • Open a “chat” channel with your workers. This could take the place of in-person toolbox talks or safety circles. Use private chats to let workers ask questions of you that they might be uncomfortable asking in front of others.
  • Put together online safety quizzes or contests for the chance to win a prize.
  • Invest in simulation training, which offers a more lifelike training experience for certain jobs, such as driving a forklift. Note that this can be a more expensive option.

*Kapust, Patrick. “Discretion in Enforcement when Considering and Employer’s Good Faith Efforts During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic.” Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Memorandum for Regional Administrators and State Plan Designees (April 16, 2020).