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The Problem With Safety Training


May 1, 2005
By Pulp & Paper Canada

Your 16-year old daughter is ready to learn to drive. You’re apprehensive, and why shouldn’t you be? After all, thousands in North America are killed in automobile accidents, many thousands more are i…

Your 16-year old daughter is ready to learn to drive. You’re apprehensive, and why shouldn’t you be? After all, thousands in North America are killed in automobile accidents, many thousands more are injured, sometimes permanently. You want your daughter to have the best driver training possible. You research, ask questions, shop around. Finally, you select the program that gives you the best hope of keeping your daughter safe, and alive.

The program? A one-hour classroom session, with a 20-minute video, some group Q&A, and 12 true-or-false questions. Upon completion, she receives a Certificate of Participation, suitable for framing, and she’s ready to drive.

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What’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong is she didn’t actually learn how to drive. She only learned about driving. She had no practice driving a car, no chance to polish her skills and she didn’t have to prove to anyone that she could drive. Then she received a piece of paper just for showing up.

So why is so much workplace training done this way? It makes you wonder.

Too often, training delivers content, but doesn’t build skills.

Baseball players learn to hit the ball more effectively in batting practice, not by attending lectures. Pilots learn to land helicopters by practicing landings, first on a simulator, then in a real machine, under close supervision. A surgeon-in-training practices on cadavers or specialized dummies. Musicians and actors rehearse.

It seems so obvious. But so often, “training” in the workforce is all about sitting and listening to an instructor, or viewing PowerPoint slides or watching a video. Trainees might learn something, but they won’t be building skills.

A real example of doing it wrong

The fictional account above regarding driver training was lifted from a real example of Lock-out/Tag-out training that can be purchased off-the-shelf. For the most part, the package is quite good. It has a well-produced video that thoroughly describes eight sources of energy. It has a well-produced learner’s guide and a handy little instructor’s guide.

It’s failing? No actual practice of lockout, and no proof that skills have actually been acquired by learners. The only “test” is a 12-question true-or-false quiz that most workplace sessions would take up as a group. An individual could completely not “get it” and still be listed as “trained” in a company database. Just like in driving, people die from not performing lock-out or tag-out properly.

How to fix it

When describing off-the-shelf, presentation-style training, managers often say that it’s “just general training” or “theory only” and, of course, it must be backed up by workplace-specific, hands-on activity. But so very often, the detailed hands-on stuff never actually happens or is done poorly.

You can fix a “theory” course by doing just three simple things:

1. List the relevant skills and knowledge you want people to have upon completing the training (and throw away anything that’s not relevant!)

2. Ensure that at least 50% of class time is devoted to practicing skills

3. Ensure that learners, as individuals, can demonstrate the knowledge and skills you want them to have. We’ll describe this part next.

4. Demonstrating proficiency: make them show you

We advocate the use of competency checks that are mapped to clear learning objectives for the training. In a competency check, if there is a knowledge component, have your learners describe it. An example for lock-out/tag-out training would be:

* List eight potential sources of energy in this workplace.

If there are skills to be learned, have the learners demonstrate them. Another lock-out/tag-out example would be:

* Given a 1/2_ air line with a valve and quick-disconnect, valve locking device, lock, hasp, and danger tag; safely remove or block all sources of energy, correctly lock-out/tag out this line, and verify the lockout.

People can either do it or they can’t. If they can, let them move on to the next skill. If they can’t, give them more practice opportunities until they can.

Another tool: Rigorous internal auditing

One of the trends we’ve encountered is an increased respect for safety auditors. We know of several well-known corporations who run very rigorous (and feared) safety audits at its sites. These auditors aren’t satisfied with training records — they go out onto the floor and ensure employees can demonstrate safety-related skills.

If there were to be an external accident investigation, we’re hearing that government inspectors are now asking about “exit criteria” for training. In other words, showing them you have records of “butts in seats” isn’t good enough-you have to show that the learners could prove they were trained. Competency checks do this. Attendance records and group true-or-false quizzes do not.

Alan Calvo is a principal with Luminance Inc., a workplace performance-consulting firm. He has been designing and implementing effective training in industrial establishments for over 10 years.

Alan Chan has over eight years experience in safety and loss control management with three different Tier 1 corporations. He has a BASc in Occupational Health & Safety and is currently a Safety, Security and Environmental Manager in the foods industry.


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