Back in the recesses of my mind is a faded memory on training that I received in the U.S. Army. The good sergeant told us that there are three types of knowledge: those things that are necessary to know, good to know, and nice to know.

He related it to throwing a hand grenade. It’s absolutely necessary that you know how to pull the pin and throw it. It is good, but not necessary, to know that you have four seconds from the time the spoon flies off until it explodes and that the grenade has a fifteen-meter burst range and a five-meter kill radius. And after everything is said and done, it’s nice to know that what you’ve just thrown is a M-26 fragmentation grenade.

This lesson has helped me develop safety training programs, and it should help you answer the most important question surrounding training: What information is absolutely necessary for your employees to know? Start with what’s essential, and use it as the framework for your entire training program.

What’s required?

The first step in deciding essential training information is to read any regulatory requirements. You have to have a fundamental grasp of the requirement and how it relates to you and your facility before you can begin to develop an appropriate training program.

When training to meet a regulatory requirement, check if the mandate is to inform employees, or to train them to perform a task. If you are simply dispensing information, you might get away with a video or classroom instruction. If employees are required to perform a task, especially a critical task, then training must include a hands-on segment.

Now it’s time to decide which method of training will best meet these needs.

Training methods

How you train depends a lot upon the size of the group and the subject matter. For example, Tennessee requires that hazard communication training be given annually. We have 850 employees in our plants. Most do not handle hazardous chemicals, but they might be exposed during a plant emergency or equipment failure, so training is still needed.

I use a combination of lecture and video and break the groups into people who don’t handle hazardous chemicals and those who do. Videos help you visualize scenarios and events, and lectures allow you to customize the message to your particular workplace environment. I explain the employer’s responsibility under the law, as well as the labeling system. This gives me a chance to relate “war stories” about incidents or near misses that have occurred. I also use this time to explain company policy about smoking and evacuation.

For employees who actually handle chemicals, my lecture is more detailed and also covers the health problems associated with overexposure.

Tips for using videos

The worst thing a health and safety professional can do when conducting training is punch his ticket by using any old video. It is a waste of time and an insult to the audience.

Videos can be useful when carefully selected. I always preview more videos than I plan on using and pick the best one for the situation. I don’t usually select videos specifically covering the right-to-know law because they can be boring. Instead, I choose videos on specific chemical hazards, flammable liquids, or fire prevention. These hazards might not just relate to the workplace, but also to risks that employees could run into at home from cleaners, hair spray, or gasoline. This helps the audience identify with safety in a personal way.

Shock videos are also available, and as odd as it might seem, people appear to be interested in watching other people getting maimed. Just remember, a little bit of shock and gore goes a long way. And it’s very important to warn the audience about the content and give them a chance to leave.

Once, a woman in a training session began to cry after viewing a shock video. While I knew that we had never had a limb amputation in the history of our plants, I did not realize we had an employee who’d suffered a finger amputation at a prior place of employment. The lesson: never assume shock videos won’t upset the audience.

Hands-on training

Building a mock-up can be a great way to provide hands-on training when it’s necessary. For our fire brigade training we essentially build controlled fires and put them out. For OSHA’s respiratory protection training requirements, I usually have trainees don their respirators fairly early in the session and then keep the equipment on while I warn them not to wear it in an oxygen-deficient atmosphere, to inspect before each use and so on. This fulfills the requirement to have the trainee wear the respirator in “normal air for a long familiarity period.”

The basic routine of trainer demonstration, trainee demonstration, then practical test has universal application. Just remember, the best programs are ones that are simple and progress in a logical sequence.

Take each training requirement case-by-case. Even though we had the in-house ability to perform the new OSHA forklift training, a local vocational school offered the training at such a reasonable cost that we had them do it. It turned out to be less expensive and disruptive to the workplace than it would’ve been to pull a supervisor from his duties to conduct the training or to devote part of the warehouse for the training space.

Sidebar: Trainer qualities

If you’re responsible for organizing and supervising training, keep these points in mind:

  • You must know your stuff. Even if you only use video, you should be familiar enough with the subject matter to be able to explain, instruct, or demonstrate to an individual or small group what you want done and how to do it.

  • It’s not always comfortable. You won’t always be giving a slick presentation in a comfortable auditorium. Instead you might be in a cold rain telling a group of workers how to protect themselves from imminent danger.

  • Take your training responsibilities seriously. If an employee who should be trained is not, or if one who has been trained to perform does not follow through, the consequences can be costly in human suffering or financial loss.

  • You will be judged. Your attitude toward training will be your employees’ attitude toward you and your subject matter. Remember, training is an opportunity for you to share your passion with employees for their well-being and safety. If you believe in what you are doing, then they will, too.

Sidebar: 12 training tips

1 Fully understand your regulatory training requirements.

2 Know the difference between being required to simply inform employees versus training employees to safely perform a task.

3 Videos will help employees visualize scenarios.

4 “War stories” about incidents or near misses customize your message to your workplace.

5 Preview more videos than you plan on using and select the best one.

6 Don’t punch your ticket by merely showing an old video and then sending everyone home.

7 A little bit of shock and gore goes a long way.

8 Be prepared for a shock video upsetting someone in your audience.

9 You can broadly apply the basic routine of trainer demonstration, trainee demonstration, followed by a practical test.

10 Your training methods and tools will vary for each topic. In some cases, you might want to use outside experts — your local fire department, emergency medical service, or vocational school instructors.

11 Decide what safety knowledge is required through training, versus what is good to know and what is nice to know. Prioritize your content and start with the essentials.

12 Remember, some employees or groups of employees will require more detailed training than others. Know your audience and their job responsibilities.