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3 Keys to Turn Safety Training into a Best Practice

By: Michael Hancock, SMS, SGE, Director of Safety, VPP Site Coordinator, Marine Corps Air Facility Quantico; Owner, Creative Safety, LLC

This article originally appeared in the winter 2021 issue of The Leader magazine, a quarterly publication of VPPPA.

I would love to know how many safety colleagues have been challenged with one or more of these nagging thoughts:

“Is my safety training changing behavior?”
“Are people actually learning anything?”
“Why is there so much push-back to attend required training sessions?”
“What’s wrong with these people, don’t they realize this training is key to their wellbeing?”

These thoughts were the source of torment as I worked through our annual self-assessment. Although completion percentages looked great, we had solid documentation and curriculum was up to date with current standards and regulations, I was confronted with the realization that a majority of those attending required safety training had very little desire to be there, even if it was for their own good. So, the journey began to determine “why,” then work to restructure safety training strategies going forward.

3 Keys to Turn Safety Training into a Best Practice:

Key #1 – Make a Connection
We love to receive Christmas cards. Card companies have made fortunes designing cards in different shapes and sizes, some with witty or sentimental sayings, and some even come (and I’m not a fan) with glitter. But no matter how hard the card company works to write something meaningful, our eyes are always drawn to what the sender, not the card company, writes to us.

Allow me to make one more comparison. With the advance of print on demand technology, we can now design and order our own cards in bulk. On the front we add family photos and the back is a more personalized message. This may be more meaningful, but when purchased in batches of 25, 50, or 100, everyone is receiving the same message; a little more personal than a store-bought card, but is it personalized enough to make a connection with the receiver?

What if you took a card, regardless of what was on the front, and you took time to create a message unique to the receiver. A thoughtful statement penned on the card that comes from your knowledge and understanding of that individual. By making this message unique to them it creates a greater opportunity for connection. Regardless of age or background the greater connection the receiver can have with the sender, the greater chance the message being communicated is received, retained, and repeated. Translating this to our training programs, the greater connection the sender can make with the receiver increases the probability that the training material is being received, retained, and reflected in the work habits of the employees.

I am in no way saying your training program is responsible for creating individual curriculum for each employee, that is simply not feasible, nor realistic. However, it doesn’t get us off the hook from taking a hard look at our safety training and acknowledging what our desired end-state is. Are we more about rosters and completion percentages, or are we about developing curriculum that actually makes a difference in the lives of the workers?

The truth is, if we desire a safe and healthy workplace where leadership supports safety training efforts, and employees are involved and engaged, our safety training strategies and knowledge transfer methods need to connect in ways that modify prior poor practices, bad habits, even workplace peer pressure. Let’s be honest, safety training is typically not high on the excitement list for management, supervisors, or workers. Why is that? Maybe a connection is missing.

No connection = No value added.
No value added = No buy-in.

Are you compliant? Probably. But as VPP sites we should strive for more than simple compliance. We desire excellence, so striving for best practices throughout the Safety and Health Training element should always be a high priority, as effective training will influence and strengthen all other VPP elements.

Regardless, if you develop your own training curriculum, purchase an off the shelf product or can afford a third-party contractor to develop custom material for you, the key to connection is to do your homework on your audience, and work into the curriculum relatable material designed to make a connection. Don’t get bogged down by regurgitating policy and regulations where the entire hour is spent on countless dos and don’ts. Are they important? Absolutely. But they only provide a foundation, not a connection.

Here’s an example of a simple connection:

  • Good: PowerPoint presentation of 29 CFR 1910.147 – The Control of Hazardous Energy. 
  • Better: A small group discussion of 29 CFR 1910.147 and how it applies locally.
  • Best: A small group discussion (machine side if possible) with all Mixer-Grinder operators covering 29 CFR 1910.147. The discussion is led by Charlie, a well-known and respected coworker. Charlie discusses local policy and recounts the time his right middle finger was amputated when he reached into a Hobart model MG1532 Mixer-Grinder to remove a frozen block of meat while the machine was still running. Following Charlie’s discussion, organize a hands-on activity where teams of two conduct supervised power down procedures. To close, review OSHA amputation investigation findings and the corrective actions taken, followed by a comprehensive quiz in the training room to evaluate comprehension.

Key #2 – Realize that Adults Learn Differently
According to The Journal of Education, the average adult forgets 25 percent of what they learned within one hour, and 85 percent within one week. Additionally, adults will enter the training environment with a “what’s-in-it-for-me” attitude. We simply cannot use the same approach in training the adult workforce as children are taught in schools. In fact, there is a name for the different approach to teaching adults: Andragogy: the method and practice of teaching adult learners. In 1980, Malcolm Shepherd Knowles was an American adult educator, famous for the adoption of the theory of andragogy. Knowles theory of andragogy identified five assumptions that we would be wise to consider as we develop safety training strategies.

  1. Self-Concept: “Because adults are at a mature developmental stage, they have a more secure self-concept than children. This allows them to take part in directing their own learning.” When developing your safety training it is important to realize that adults are capable (and often respond better) to self-paced learning, discussion and individual or group research. Don’t get in a rut where students get stuck in a classroom staring at a screen where the facilitator reads PowerPoint slides. Slides are okay to be used but should not be the sole medium for material delivery.
  2. Past Learning Experience“Adults have a vast array of experiences to draw on as they learn, as opposed to children who are in the process of gaining new experiences.” This can be good and bad. As material is being delivered, adult learners immediately evaluate the content and determine if it is relevant to their lives. Depending on which side of the line they fall on, their experience has a great deal of influence on their acceptance or rejection of the content you provide.
  3. Readiness to Learn: “Many adults have reached a point in which they see the value of education and are ready to be serious about and focused on learning.” This requires safety trainers to evaluate the delivery method and the material being presented and ask the hard question, will the learner identify with the value of the training? If done well, and the learner can identify the content of the session as an investment of their time, because they are ready to learn they will engage in the session with eagerness and will communicate to others the importance of attending the training.
  4. Practical Reasons to Learn: “Adults are looking for practical, problem-centered approaches to learning. Many adults return to continuing education for specific practical reasons, such as entering a new field.” Adult learners are busy with a wide range of responsibilities. Adding a training event to an already busy schedule can be a major reason for pushback. By recognizing this, training should be designed in a way that helps solve problems at work or strengthens opportunities for career progression or change.
  5. Driven by Internal Motivation: “While many children are driven by external motivators – such as punishment if they get bad grades or rewards if they get good grades – adults are more internally motivated.” Also known as intrinsic motivation, adults can often be driven by nothing more than an opportunity to take part in training to feel a sense of satisfaction, to learn something new, or to tackle a new challenge. With no expectation for an external reward, there are personal satisfactions that drive the adult learner.

Key #3 – Understand that Everyone Has a Style
A learning style that is. In the early 1960’s the National Training Laboratories Institute developed what is called “The Learning Pyramid,” and from the three primary learning styles (Kinesthetic, Visual, and Auditory) established an average “rate of retention.”

Although more recent studies show varying degrees of accuracy, the principle remains the same. By incorporating multiple delivery techniques into the period of instruction, you can strategically deliver critical information using higher retention methods. If you want to take your training to an even higher level, conduct a learning-style assessment as part of your on-boarding strategy. By tracking individual learning styles in your local Safety Information Management System, even greater learning can take place by creating targeted content to that unique audience. There are several sites that provide learning style assessments – one free site can be found here.

​One last thought. Don’t hesitate to listen to pushback. The foundation of pushback may be grounded in one of the three keys above, or you may discover other areas that need to be addressed. On March 9, 1832, seeking his first seat to the Illinois General Assembly, a young 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln wrote “Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.” Mr. Lincoln was well ahead of his time, as those words are as fitting today as they were 189 years ago.