Can a human safety trainer be replaced by a computer? The idea might sound good to upper management (no benefits to pay, no vacation time) but in reality, this option is impossible. As you will see as you continue reading, you need to carefully consider many factors when deciding if computer-based training is for you.

Computer-based training (sometimes called CBT) takes place when training is delivered through the use of a computer. Computer training programs can be extremely useful as part of an overall training strategy but there are things you should consider before deciding to use it.

What to ask

Does the content you want to get across require interaction?If so, computer-based training may be a good choice. Keep in mind that for computer-based training to meet some OSHA training requirements, the training must be tailored to the particular worksite and custom computer-based training programs can be expensive. Additionally, the attendees must have a way to ask questions and have them answered by a qualified trainer, although according to OSHA's Web site, access to a qualified trainer via telephone hotline is acceptable.

Many safety-training classes also require the use of hands-on training such as practicing to put on and take off personal protective equipment. Computer-based training alone will not allow this.

Would the employees' understanding of the material be improved if they were able to learn from the group? If so, computer-based training may not be the best choice. Instructor-led classes or video teleconferences may work better. If you are training a mix of new hires and experienced workers, the new hires may be able to learn a great deal of important information from the company veterans.

How motivated are the trainees? For self-instruction such as computer-based training to be effective, the participant needs to be internally motivated, meaning that they must want to learn the information you are providing. Instructor-led classes may be better for unmotivated groups.

Does the training need to be given in convenient locations? If the workforce is in various locations or working on different shifts or schedules, computer-based training can be a great help, although access to technology can be important. If employees work from home or on various job sites, computer-based training can help get the required information out consistently to everyone as long as they have access to a computer.

How resistant will the participants be to completing training requirements at a computer rather than in a classroom? There may be resistance because they are not familiar with computers and are afraid of being embarrassed by their lack of knowledge. Alternatively, some individuals may even look forward to the social aspects of training classes and may enjoy being with their co-workers in a group training session. Some people may associate computer-based training with being isolated from the rest of the workforce and it may leave them feeling uncomfortable.

If there is great resistance to computer-based training for whatever reason, traditional instructor-led training may be necessary. It may be possible, though, to slowly integrate computer-based training into the safety-training program. You could start by going through a computer-based training program as a group in a class setting. This may make the skeptics a little more comfortable with the idea.

Will managers be resistant to computer-based training? Another factor to consider is the possible resistance of managers who may discourage their employees from participating in computer-based training. Some managers may be concerned about supervision issues while the employee is taking the computer-based training class. All managers may not be aware of the benefits of computer-based training, so information should be provided that will help them to support whatever method of safety training is selected.

Is there a great difference in the amount of safety education among the trainees? If so, computer-based training can be a great benefit since the programs can often branch users off based on their level of knowledge. Also, since the computer-based training is self-paced, an inexperienced trainee or new hire can go through the material more slowly and stop to review if they don't understand something without slowing down an entire class of more experienced employees. Similarly, an experienced employee can go through the material more swiftly, which can help maintain their focus and interest.

How permanent is the information you want to get across? If the information needs to be updated often, computer-based training would not be the best choice since it is often expensive to make changes. If the material you want to present using computer-based training has a long shelf-life, it may be a good option.

Is the workforce multi-lingual? Computer-based training can be a great tool to help get consistent information out to all workers, regardless of the language they speak and/or understand. Reading and listening to training only in English can be very difficult for non-native English speakers. Computer-based training can bridge this communication gap so that the safety training is effective for all.

How many people need to be trained? Computer-based training is sometimes preferred as a solution for larger groups of trainees since the cost of either purchasing or having a custom computer-based training package designed can be prohibitive if only a handful of employees need to be trained.

Evaluate results

Whether you are using traditional classroom training or computer-based training, it is important to evaluate the results of your training efforts. Evaluations of training programs can help you to decide to continue or discontinue existing training programs or to change the way you present the information. Evaluations can also help you to gain management support for your safety-training program.

With computer-based training, you can be sure that attendees are all receiving the same information and participants can take the class as their schedules allow without managers worrying about any stop in production. Additionally, trainees can take the class at their own pace and review concepts as necessary. Computer-based training can also be a great help with recordkeeping associated with training. OSHA does not require that training records be kept in any particular format as long as they are readily available to the employer, employees and their representatives, and to OSHA. Computer-based training programs can fill this requirement.

If the number of students to be trained can justify the cost of developing a program, computer-based training can be a great addition to your overall safety-training program.

SIDEBAR: Counting the cost

If the group being trained is very small, traditional classroom training may be more cost-effective than computer-based training. If you divide the total cost of the computer-based training package (including equipment) by the number of trainees and compare it to the cost of traditional classroom training (instructor's time, room, materials), calculated the same way, it's easy to see that the cost of computer-based training is probably a better alternative when large numbers of employees need to be trained.