The costs of poor health and safety to manufacturers is significant. Organisations face financial loss and, more importantly, affected individuals and families risk a reduction in quality of life.
HSE statistics estimate that, despite widely provided manual handling training, in the UK, 8.9 million days were lost due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in 2019-20.
It’s important to recognise that training is only one part of an effective learning programme, the end goal of which is competence. In other words, for workers to be able to perform an activity, safely and without harm, within the workplace. This is achieved through a cycle of preparation, delivery, transference and measurement.
A first-class health and safety learning programme isn’t developed overnight. However, there are certain actions leaders can take to avoid their organisation’s training becoming an ineffective, box-ticking exercise and to cultivate a robust, high-quality programme.
Here are 5 practical tips for improving the effectiveness of your employees’ health and safety training:
Is training the solution?
Leaders sometimes generalise training needs, for example by deciding all staff should have the same manual handling course, when different courses or solutions might be more appropriate. Consider employees who need to lift big boxes of paper onto high shelves. You could train them how to do so safely, or you could substitute the big boxes for smaller ones which go on lower shelves, or even eliminate the boxes entirely by only storing files digitally. All three options can reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries, but to very different degrees.
By carefully risk assessing hazards and applying the hierarchy of controls, an organisation can be more targeted in identifying the true competence needed for risk reduction. Training might then be one of the tools used to achieve that competence. Training is a human-centric control measure and as such is one of the least effective ways of reducing risk as humans are fallible. Removing, replacing or isolating the hazard should always be the priority.
Support in the workplace
For training to be effective, it requires organisational support. If the workplace doesn’t support safe and healthy ways of working, even the best training will fall flat. The business needs to see it as an investment, not just an expenditure. Staff also need to understand why they need to achieve competence. It’s a collaboration.
Worker participation in health and safety is essential for success. They should be consulted in the risk assessment process and in the required competence identification process. They should be made aware of what the risks are with and without the competence control measure. Learning outcomes of any training related to that competence should be clear, relevant and achievable. The business and workplace should solicit and act on practical suggestions on how to further reduce the risk (e.g. additional time, extra people or different patterns of supervision).
Indicators of effectiveness
While attendance, feedback forms and tests serve a purpose, the ultimate test of effectiveness of a health and safety training programme must be whether it protects people from harm. Does it achieve competence and is that competence actually the right control measure to reduce the risk of a hazard?
Some hazards are associated with consequences that are more frequent, such as slips and trips. Others are more rare. While most workplaces don’t have many fires, you can audit known fire risks, such as the accumulation of combustible rubbish or fire doors being wedged open or blocked.
Look for leading indicators that relate to the behaviours and outcomes you want to encourage or discourage, whether the number of requests to look at the asbestos registers, the usage of hearing protection or correct completion of permit forms.
Get the tech right
Not all technology available to support workplace learning is created equal. Whatever you invest in needs to help improve outcomes. Consider where tech can support throughout the whole learning cycle, from identifying training needs through to assessing skills.
Options like VR, while exciting, can tend to be gimmicky and should only really be considered if they can enhance the learning experience. In the right context, though, they can serve a purpose, such as training for high-risk tasks or where you want learners to picture themselves in certain controlled environments, e.g. when training to spot hazards.
Recording on-the-job training
On-the-job learning can play an important role in developing and testing competency. While e-learning systems and classroom tutors tend to keep records or a register, on-the-job training tends to be the least well planned and documented. Not documenting what on-the-job training involves can leave organisations vulnerable to costly fines and reputational damage, and employees at risk of severe injury.
Toolbox talks and safety briefings are useful for achieving competence and should be documented as learning events in a training register similar to more formal training.
About the author
Aisling Miller is ‘Head of Product – Training & Learning’ at EcoOnline, a provider of Environmental, Health, Safety and Quality (EHSQ) software. Aisling has a PhD in Environmental Microbiology, and spent years working in science education and communication before moving into software product management.