How to make safety training that works

What do you typically imagine when you hear the words "safety training"? A Powerpoint presentation to a sleepy audience? How about mandatory online training, with a reluctant user slumped in front of a computer clicking through endless quiz questions? Or a bored classroom of people with arms folded watching a cheesy video of people over-exaggerating injuries?

These options have come to exemplify safety training, and the common thread here is that no matter the delivery method, the audience is bored. A bored audience is not engaged, and a non-engaged audience is not learning.

Don't get me wrong, the mentioned training delivery methods have their place. However, to be effective for high risk safety topics, safety training must have two important aspects: Realism and Engagement. Let's look at each aspect and why it is important.

To be impactful, training has to feel like the real thing. The more senses of the student that are engaged, the more class content is shown to be retained. This is where kinesthetic learning is crucial; learn by doing. Structuring the training so that the students actually get to do and practice what you are trying to teach them is huge. Many individuals really only learn by doing, and when reinforced with thoughtful narration, story-telling and written content, you can engage all the learning methods for your students.

Here’s an example with the Slip Simulator. Students get to experience what it feels like to walk on a surface more slippery than ice, and they get to practice technique in addition to listening and reading instruction on what they should do. They physically do the technique and create muscle memory for walking in these slippery conditions. Further, to increase realism, different obstacles and challenges are added that are experienced in their typical work environment.

The effect of realism with these challenges are two-fold: these realistic challenges give them more opportunity to physically practice their technique in relevant situations and increase awareness on how to deal with them, and secondly, the realism of these challenges helps validate the usefulness of the training as it is customized and specifically pertains to their work challenges.

Getting people engaged in the training means they will pay attention, internalize the learning, and retain more information. And if the training is memorable enough, potentially create a viral loop encouraging others to sign up and take the training themselves. The two key factors for effective engagement are quite simple: Fun and Fear.

Fun seems obvious, but when was the last time you had fun in any kind of training? Fun can be had with humor, but as we’ve all experienced when the humor and entertainment is too forced, most are not engaged with the content. Fun should be fostered through back and forth with the students in the class, and naturally formed through the training activity and not “presented” by the instructor. This is when it can be very beneficial to structure training classes with co-workers, so they are already familiar with one another and can have a good time with each other a little more readily than a group of strangers.

Fear, on the other hand, does not seem an obvious element for effective safety training. However, fear leads to an appropriate awareness of the safety hazard present that the training is addressing. An appropriate level of present fear will help drive home the importance of the training, and increases the chance of altering the behavior of the individual to respect the hazard, and ultimately reduce incidents. The impact of fear in safety training was researched by Mike Burke of Tulane University in the paper titled “The Dread Factor: How Hazards and Safety Training Influence Learning and Performance”. After analyzing the data from safety studies from 16 countries and spanning a sample size of nearly 25,000, it was clear that people need to experience a certain level of dread or fear to understand why they need training.

Both fun and fear are present in Slip Simulator training. Just watch any of the videos of people training on the Slip Simulator in a training group and you will hear laughter, banter between individuals, and see a smile on peoples’ faces. You will also see people tentative to walk on the Slip Simulator or hesitate when presented with certain challenges. This is the fear component, and while not enough to prevent the students from participating effectively in the training, it is enough to heighten their awareness of slip, trip and fall hazards in the workplace and also at home.

So, how do we piece this all together to create effective safety training? As a safety professional, you know the hazards that need to be addressed (and most likely are now) with training. It is important to evaluate the current training methods and ask yourself if they are effective. Another crucial thing to consider is to match the level of training engagement and realism with your injury risk. Don’t build elaborate, hands on training simulators for low risk injury issues, nor do not simply give a 10 minute presentation to cover a high risk technical procedure. The former will not be cost and time effective, and the latter is even worse by downplaying the injury risk and will create the potential for more accidents.

To create a training that resonates with the students, the most important thing to do is listen. You need to know what the group you are training does, day in and day out. Ask them what their challenges are. Then, once you understand what their job is like, relate the training back to their needs. Ideally the training content is optimized to their needs and challenges, but even if that is not possible, you can continually relate the key safety points back to how the group experiences them in their work day.

To sum it all up, focus on making the training realistic, fun and add a little bit of fear. Identify the trainings that can be improved and warrant a higher level of engagement and realism, and then listen to the people who the training is for to make sure it will relate to what they do everyday.