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Seven reasons why safety training fails

For many employees, safety training is a necessary evil. Common sentiments are it's boring, covers topics that are "common-sense," and is done simply to comply with government regulations. Many companies spend significant money and time on training that does little to create a safe work environment. Employees attend simply because they are forced to attend - they do not expect to learn anything useful.

Yet, by changing the approach and avoiding these seven common mistakes, companies can transform safety training from a perceived chore to an attitude that inspires workers to make safety an integral part of their daily tasks.

1. Treating training as an "event"

There are certain events that trigger safety training - orientation of new employees, new equipment, annual retraining, a serious accident and so on. While all are excellent opportunities to shape attitudes and reinforce safe practices, it is often assumed that once the training is done, the employees get it and can get back to business as usual.

Yet, safety is a continuous process that requires incremental adjustments and fine-tuning. The workplace is dynamic and good safety training will provide the skills to problem solve for hazards that crop up unexpectedly. It needs to move beyond a checklist mentality by challenging employees to work more safely, share ideas, coach and mentor fellow workers and invite feedback regarding unsafe practices.

2. Adopting a one-size-fits-all approach

Before safety training is developed, it's important to identify who is being trained and what are the goals. If it's an orientation session, there may be a mix of experienced and inexperienced workers of various ages with different notions of risk. Although all will not be familiar with the workplace, its unique hazards or the company's safety culture, the training needs to take into account the group's differences. Inexperienced workers may be intimidated, less likely to ask questions and more inclined to take risks.

Experienced workers may have habits that do not fit your operation or training skills that could be an asset for the younger workers. Recognizing these issues and formulating ways to deal with them should be a natural extension of the orientation training.

3. Making incorrect generalizations

As the number of older workers increases, companies are developing strategies to manage the associated health and safety risks. While this makes good business sense to maintain valuable skills and a strong knowledge base, generalizing about the capabilities of older workers can be a mistake. Quoted in a Business Insurance article, Dr. Glenn Pransky, a medical doctor and director of the Center for Disability Research at Liberty Mutual Group Inc.'s Research Institute for Safety notes, "solid research data points to certain deteriorating abilities related to aging, such as decreasing eyesight or hearing, but other attributes often associated with aging vary among individuals." This supports earlier research that there is more variability in work performance within age groups than between age groups.

Safety strategies that are beneficial for workers of all ages, such as designs and processes that reduce strain and accidents, wellness, stretching, and conditioning, can minimize the age gap and overcome the resistance that may come from promoting new techniques for old skills.

4. Focusing on rules and punitive measures

There is no argument that safety rules are important and need to be followed. Involving employees in the rule making process instills ownership and improves compliance.

But there can still be a chasm between knowing and understanding the rules and following them. When an employee breaks a rule, the first step is to understand why. Was it a careless disregard for the rule, or did the PPE not fit, were others breaking the rule to speed production, did the employee really understand the hazards, and so on... From there, a fair, consistent and proper disciplinary action should follow.

Employers may be reluctant to discipline an injured worker, but if the injury was the result of a safety violation, it is important to administer disciple consistently. While there is a negative connotation to "discipline," it is a teachable moment that can lead to better choices that prevent future infractions. Employers can also benefit by recording the data in a way that gives them a broad view of safety at their facility as well as documentation in the event of an OSHA inspection.

5. Conducting training only to meet OSHA and/or state requirements

With the multitude of OSHA safety training requirements as well as state regulations that can be stricter than federal training rules, it's easy to understand why employers "train for the government." As a result, employers focus on complying with the requirements, carefully documenting topics and attendance, rather than evaluating the quality or effectiveness of the training. Workers quickly get the message and "check out" during training because it's not meaningful and does not meet their needs.

6. Poor design and presentation

It's no secret that safety training has a reputation for being boring. Search Google for "how to eliminate boring safety training" and you'll get over 323,000,000 hits. All too often, there's a dry presentation on government regulations and the company's rules and regulations. Little consideration is given to how useful the training is and even less to the quality of the presentation. Canned videos or subject matter experts fail to engage the frontline workers who need to know the "what," "why" and "how."

There are a host of techniques for training including lecture, group discussions, case studies, problem solving, demonstrations, interactive training, videos and webinars and it's often a combination that is most effective. Key to success is how workers perceive the relevancy of the training, how they can put what they learn into practice and how the skills will make the workplace safer.

7. Letting supervisors off the hook

Supervisors are responsible for listening to their front line staff, observing behavior and enforcing safe work practices. They should not only provide input to improve the effectiveness of the training but inspire workers to value safety. Supervisors are not doing their job, if an unsafe incident occurs and the response is "I've told them a thousand times."

The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, IN, recently ran a front-page photo of workers at a construction project sitting inside a guardrail with their legs dangling over the edge watching a minor league TinCups baseball game. Although the workers were on their lunch break, they were violating an OSHA standard. The construction site superintendent saw the photo and suspended the workers for a week, a good example of being accountable for individual compliance.