Safety training has a PR problem. Rarely do you hear a worker who is enthused about scheduled safety training, either before or after attending.

Why do you suppose that is?

There are researchers who study how adults learn, what they like, what they don’t and what actually works with regard to influencing behavior. My own data comes from one training session at a time for the past <gulp> thirty-some years, generally with employees who were part of the learning process by mandate, not choice.

Let’s be clear. Influencing behavior is the name of the game, and what safety training is intended to do, whether it’s in-person training or eLearning.

To meet that goal, sometimes we need to explain to workers how to build a watch. Other times, the best strategy is simply to tell them the time.

There are times we need to provide a deep understanding of concepts, complexities, and the shades of gray between the black and white of “wrong” and “right.” The employee needs to know how to build a watch, how the gears and springs work together, and how one tiny part impacts another, in order to make good decisions in the moment. Our responsibility as safety trainers is to provide them with that understanding.

In other circumstances, it’s as elementary as being aware of the time.

One of the secrets of being an effective safety trainer is knowing the difference.

Telling Them What Time It Is

There are topics for which the mission is to get in, make it clear and get out — so the employees know the time. Often times, these are policy topics.

  • Long pants are required on the job
  • You must report to the project with your photo badge or you won’t be able to access the jobsite to work
  • If you work in the office, do not, under any circumstances, enter anything marked with a confined space entry sign
  • We have strict policies about diversity, equity and inclusion. If you have a t-shirt or baseball cap or tattoo that could be considered political or offensive to other employees, we don’t want to see it. If we see it, you’ll beĀ  required to leave the workplace.
  • You need to wear your ANSI-approved safety glasses from the time you walk through the door onto the production floor until the time you leave it.
  • If you operate heavy machinery, you must report to work fit for duty. If you are drunk or high, or under the influence of prescribed (or un-prescribed) medication, are exhausted because you were up all night with your sick baby, or are feeling unwell for any reason, you are not fit for duty.

The risk of overexplaining these policies, telling them all the details about building the watch — such as all of the reasons why you created this policy, or the unnecessary details of the regulatory language associated with the rule — are real. One is losing the actual message buried under a whole lot of words. The other is losing your adult learners’ respect, insulted that you feel the need to explain why a swastika t-shirt is not okay on a construction site.

The tangible risk from this, beyond becoming the subject of your learners’ contempt, is that they tune you out when you are covering something that requires their rapt attention and understanding.

No weapons are more potent than brevity and simplicity. [Katherine Cecil Thurston]

(How do I know? Because I’ve made this error myself. More is not always better.)

Telling Them How To Build A Watch

My philosophy is you need to slow down and dig deep for content where the employee has to truly understand the concepts and details adequately to make solid risk-based decisions, particularly if those decisions are made independent of their supervisor or the safety team. Common ones from my training career?

  • Confined Space Entry requirements for confined space entry teams, rescue teams and supervisors/managers/safety professionals who are writing entry procedures and permits or handling emergencies
  • Electrical Safety for employees who make risk-based decisions while working on their own, up to and including employees who perform live (energized) electrical work under NFPA 70E, including voltage testing and troubleshooting
  • Spill Response for employees on a Hazmat Team for an employer with a wide variety of chemicals in a variety of operations
  • Fall Protection requirements for employees who will be making their own fall protection decisions or inspections, or who act as ‘competent persons’ for their employer

For these topics, when presented with a scenario, there is often no single correct answer. The appropriate response to a situation could depend on multiple factors. However, there might be one choice which is not only wrong, but potentially deadly. The safety training must ensure that every employee has the knowledge to make a safe choice, or stop to seek guidance.

With adult learners and employees, it doesn’t take much to get it wrong.

At best, you might insult your workers by overexplaining a simple rule.

“I get it, I get it already! Can we move on now?”

At worst, you oversimplify a complex topic and put someone in a position where they make a poor decision when it comes to risk, resulting in an injury, or even a fatality.

Seriously, that’s it?! “Wear your required gloves? WHICH gloves?”

For me, a little litmus test that helps is this–

If the topic would fit on a bumper sticker, just tell your learners what time it is.

If someone brings up the topic and you find yourself saying “well, hmm, that depends, it’s a little complicated,” that’s no quick-and-dirty bumper sticker message. For that topic you’ll need to provide a dive into the hows and whys and provide some scenario-based interactions to test understanding of those concepts.

For electrical safety, it might be the concepts of voltage versus current, understanding why some electrical incidents result in a shock versus an electrocution, conductors versus insulators, why an arc blast is such a catastrophic incident and how to avoid it, and how to manage risk if live electrical work must be performed.

When I’m doing live training, I love these sort of discussions. We dig in, geek out, exchange ideas, share tales of electrical work gone wrong, and find out which employees once peed on an electric fence on a farm and why they weren’t electrocuted — that’s a simple and slightly awkward way to illustrate voltage versus current.

When we are building eLearning, it’s the same concept. How do we lay out the basics and intersperse interactions that confirm that understanding, progressing to realistic scenario-based questions where <imagine!> there’s more than one correct answer?

You can see that treating electrical safety as a bumper sticker — “Wear your gloves!” — could be catastrophic.

Adult learners, grown-ups such as they are, appreciate this distinction. I consider it a matter of respect for their time, life experience and attention.

Tell me what you think!


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