Do safety and health professionals train, instruct or educate workers? Are these three the same thing? Let’s examine each one and see if there are critical differences.

Training can be defined as assisting others in learning skills in a specific field. Training is usually performed when you want others to do something specific and precise, like operate a machine safely. The purpose of training is to create a change in learners so that they continually do what you want. With increased training, others can often perform the desired behavior with fewer errors and greater speed. The goal of training is to be able to make the steps of a task, including safety procedures, routine.

If you’ve ever attended training sessions where you were expected to learn a new skill, such as how to use a new software program, in order to “really get it” you also needed hands-on practice in applying what you were told. Sometimes you were told to go back to your desk and try to use what you learned, but in the best cases of training there is a computer in front of you on which you can immediately try your new skills.

Some safety training classes are purely informational, such as an awareness class on bloodborne pathogens. This is information you need to know and understand, but unless you are practicing procedures for cleanup of bodily fluids you’re probably not going to offer too many hands-on experiences. Conversely, if you are providing lockout/tagout training, you could easily include hands-on activities as part of the class.

Instruction is different from training in that it can help others go beyond the specifics of what was taught. This can be particularly important in safety. We can instruct others what to do in an emergency, but since all emergencies are different the learner will need to be able to take the information and apply it to the situation at hand.

Or say you want to teach someone how to lift safely. While you can have the class practice with boxes in the classroom, the individuals will need to know how to apply those safe lifting principles out on the floor and in the field. Instruction aims to provide the individuals with the knowledge so that they can apply and use the information in a variety of situations.

Education is another term also often heard in the context of safety training. Education is generally more long term. Education also depends on one’s life experiences. For example, a worker may have learned from experience that the risk of getting something in his or her eye when not wearing safety glasses is relatively low. Education on the importance of wearing safety glasses would need to go deeper in this case to try to get at the underlying culture causing these thoughts. Education takes place over the long term as does culture change. One class on eye protection is not going to change this worker’s mind because his or her experiences may get in the way.

Doing all three

As safety professionals we do all three: train, instruct and educate.

  • We may provide training when there is a skill where we do not want any variation to occur, such as with the safe operation of a particular machine.

  • We may try to instruct others when, for example, explaining how to read material safety data sheets. Although we are providing instructions, it is often up to the individual to apply these skills when reading or deciphering each specific MSDS since these may vary in appearance and content.

  • We educate when trying to convey ideas related to safety culture or expected safe behavior. Often these sessions refer back to and draw on the experiences of the attendees.

    All three of these actions serve to increase or improve the skills and knowledge of the workforce. They can be mixed and used together as needed.

    SIDEBAR: Learning in the workplace

    Malcolm Knowles, a leader in the field of adult education, believes there are four key principles in the area of adult learning in the workplace: 1) readiness, 2) experience, 3) autonomy and 4) action.

    Readiness — The process of getting those in your class to open their minds to what you have to say. To do this, you must convince them that the information will help them in some way. Let them understand what’s in it for them.

    Experience — The effect of prior knowledge in learning. Your training must be presented at the proper level based on the experience of your class.

    Autonomy — How much freedom of choice the trainee has. You can increase trainees’ autonomy by encouraging active participation and providing opportunities for them to make their own decisions.

    Action — Successful on-the-job application.