You don’t have to spend a lot of time with trainers before you wind up in a conversation about the best type of training. Some say nothing can match instructor-led training. Others are big fans of online and e-learning solutions. This is true in all walks of training, and it seems to me it’s an especially common discussion in safety training.

But the truth is that there is no single type of training that’s always better than the others. In fact, research shows that training of different types can be equally effective. Given that, the best idea is to use a blended learning solution, picking and choosing the best type of training to suit each particular training need.

Types of training

Let’s take a step back and talk more about these different types of training and consider some examples from the world of safety training in particular. The list below isn’t complete, but it includes some of the more common types of safety training materials in typical industrial and manufacturing settings.

Written materials: Policies and procedures in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and PDF. For example, you may deliver your alcohol and drug policy in a PDF.

Multimedia: Photos, videos, audio recordings and webinars. A video from OSHA or the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) highlighting a real-life safety disaster is a commonly used and effective training tool.

e-Learning: e-Learning modules completed online via a learning management system (LMS). Many companies use e-learning modules, both off-the-shelf and custom, as part of their safety training program. Did you know you can use an e-learning authoring tool to make your own?

Instructor-led training: Formal classroom-style training, safety meetings, and more. Safety managers often hold classroom-style sessions to explains things like Hazard Communication, and/or hire a third-party consultant to provide forklift certifications, or simply hold weekly safety meetings to discuss recent issues at the workplace.

OJT/mentoring/shadowing: Structured and unstructured training in the field. Shadowing/following/mentoring programs, in which an experienced worker teaches a new worker the safety ropes (and other job skills), are used in many companies.

Social learning: Wikis, social media, blogs and more. An in-house “safety wiki” can be a great place to keep your written safety training programs so workers can review them when they need to.

Appropriate training for each occasion

Each type of training comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, instructor-led training can be great for people who prefer learning from a person or in cases when spontaneous feedback is really helpful. By contrast, e-learning works well for people who prefer self-guided instruction, perhaps because they learn more quickly or more slowly than others. Plus e-learning courses can include more sophisticated visuals than typical instructor-led training. So begin your selection process by considering the pros and cons of each part of your blended learning solution.

Once you’ve given some thought to the unique qualities of each type of training, you can pick the type of training for each training need, keeping the following points in mind:

Choose the type that best helps the employee satisfy the learning objectives: Want your employee to know where your safety data sheets (SDSs) are stored? A written document or a very simple e-learning module may be just the thing. Want them to perform the pre-operation startup procedure for a new machine? Some in-the-field, OJT training might be better.

Create training for different learning styles: There isn’t a ton of research to support this, but many believe that different people learn better in different ways. Some workers may be more comfortable with an instructor-led classroom session, while others may prefer a self-paced e-learning module. Get to know your workers and their learning preferences, and choose accordingly.

Consider your assessment needs: What kind of proof do you need that your worker learned from the training? Is it OK for the worker to simply acknowledge receiving something? If so, maybe a signature on a written document is all that’s required. An e-learning module with a built-in test may be appropriate if you’re evaluating knowledge, or an in-the-field skill demonstration observed by a competent person may be appropriate for a job skill with related hazards (such as how to enter a confined space).

Remember your record-keeping and compliance requirements: In safety, if training is the yin, then record-keeping and compliance concerns are the yang. If you’ll need to prove to OSHA that you provided safety training and the worker understood the training, then that need for proof should factor into your decision on training type.

Don’t forget real-life factors: Like it or not, you may have to make some decisions based on real-world concerns such as cost, logistics, corporate mandates, staffing availability, and more. For example, if your training budget is tight and you’ve only got so many in-person training hours to use in a year, lean heavily on written materials and online learning for basic-level training and reserve that face-to-face training for the times when you get the most bang for your buck.

Shades of gray

When I was a kid, it was common to argue who was better, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. These were often intense, passionate debates, expressed in terms of stark whites and blacks with little room for gray. Nowadays, it seems safe to say both bands were great.

Hopefully, the same will soon be true for the “What’s better, instructor-led training or online learning?” question too. Safety managers should be able to pick and choose from these methods—plus more, such as OJT and written documentation—to fit each training need and put together the most effective safety training program possible.