Once new employees are given a thorough health and safety induction, there is no argument that safety training must take place regularly. But how often have you heard complaints from people at all levels in the corporate hierarchy that they have to attend another health and safety event?

One of the reasons people give for grudging attendance, is that they are busy and would rather get on with the “real job”. Of course we should strive to correct this negative attitude. However, there are deeper reasons: “We have heard it all before and we already know what to do”, and “Here we go again, death by PowerPoint slides, with lots of diagrams – never sure what we must do”.

“you have to help people come to their own realisation of the behaviours that could hurt them”

Clearly there is a need for health and safety training to be more effective, that is, to keep people’s attention, and give them something interesting they can apply easily at the workplace. This objective may be easy to achieve for technical training, such as showing people how to use a fire extinguisher or a breathing apparatus. Also, people can be tested to check that they have actually learned and are competent. However, when it comes to behavioural safety training it is more challenging. Lecturing, instructing and hectoring, and slides explaining how the brain works and how human perception works do not help people change. You have to help people come to their own realisation of the behaviours that could hurt them.

There are two successful and enjoyable methods I have used over 25 years to make behavioural training more interesting and effective.

Method one

Use past incidents as thinking exercises.

Summary of events:

An individual was having breakfast in the mess. After buttering his toast he wanted to discard the empty plastic butter packet in the dustbin. To do this he had to lean over the bread toaster. Unfortunately, the baggy sleeve of his jersey touched the toaster and caught fire, resulting in burns to the underside of his upper arm.


Give at least five recommendations to prevent a recurrence of this incident.

I use a few domestic incidents because at least one in seven people are injured in the kitchen and during leisure activities such as at the gymnasium. I use four of these scenarios in a three-hour workshop. As you would expect, after working in small groups, people come up with many technical recommendations such as move the bin, move the toaster, move the butter and wear suitable clothing.

The trick is to agree with those technical solutions that are practical, but then concentrate on the behaviours. The fact that the ergonomics of the worksite is poor is an example of lack of awareness. The person leaning over a hot toaster, and those who around him who do not see the hazard, are other examples of lack of awareness. However, a major behaviour is the fear factor. Even if people see the baggy jersey as a hazard, they are too afraid to ask the person to “tape it up” or “take it off”.

Method two

Make up scenarios like this:

You and four friends are having a fantastic Friday night out. Each week one of you takes a turn not to drink too much so he/she can drive the car safely and drop people off at their homes. It’s now two o’clock in the morning and you all want to go home. Unfortunately, this week’s driver is completely drunk – as is everyone else. He insists quite forcefully that he is okay to drive.

You’ve tried to convince the others that it’s better to get taxis but they don’t agree. At this time in the morning it will take about 40 minutes to get a taxi.

Should you:

a) Make an excuse so you can stay behind and get a taxi.

b) Be loyal to your friends and go in the car with them – after all they are not concerned and it’s only a short journey home.

c) Take away the car keys and arrange for taxis.

d) Get the driver six cups of coffee and wait another hour until he’s sobered up.

Again, as you would predict people know the best answer – “take away the keys”. But then you role play and reject most of the sensible suggestions. Make it difficult to do the best option. For example, “The driver is aggressive and will hit you and the others are happy to go in the car and so won’t help you get the keys.” “You do not have the telephone number for his/her spouse or mother”. “The bar is closed so you cannot distract with another beer.”

Eventually, after unsafe proposals such as letting down the tires, and disconnecting the battery, someone comes up with the only solution “Call the police!” Yes, in every workshop, some people suggest this last resort as a way to protect people. Again, the fear factor arises as a behaviour stopping people doing the right thing. People worry about being seen as an informant or losing a friend. Imagine the discussion around that.

Then you could ask, “Who is the police in your workplace?”

Why is interactivity effective?

This question could be asked another way: Why are traditional PowerPoint and lectures talks ineffective?

When it comes to behaviours almost all people know what the best choice is for safety. In fact, most human beings already know a lot intuitively about most topics. So, telling people what they already know leads them to switch off. The challenge for most people is not what, but how. This is called “the knowing-doing gap”. This means that interaction – discussing how to do what they know they should do – helps them and they feel they have made progress.

This is particularly relevant for safety scenarios, where to do what you should do can be very difficult.

The two methods already described make people face this difficulty – how to do what you KNOW you should do. As you can imagine there is lots of discussion, plenty of humour and many good suggestions. People learn from the recommendations of others and also from the “wrong” options in method two. Perhaps for the first-time people realise that it is their own behaviours that can lead them into danger and a possible accident. There may be a hazard present but their awareness of it was poor. A supervisor may be suggesting an unsafe method of work, but it is our fear that prevents us stopping the job. Workmates may be mocking me when I do not carry that 45kg load and my embarrassment leads me go ahead and do it. A few people cannot accept that they have ultimate responsibility to stop themselves and others doing unsafe things and become argumentative.

Here are the guidelines I follow when facilitating safety training:

  Follow the 30/70 rule. You speak for 30% of the time and allow the audience 70%

  Arrange the room cabaret style (round tables with 6-8 people per table) and not like a classroom

  Insist that mobile telephones be switched off and are off the tables

  First try to cut your slides down by half and then strive to have no more than five slides per 30 minutes

  Do not read off the slides line by line

  Cut out all complex slides (lots of diagrams and flow charts) and those you know people at the back will not be able to read

  Design a short exercise right at the beginning of workshop so that people work in small groups on tables – get them talking

  Ask questions and wait for someone to answer – do not answer your own question because the audience will realise that they do not have to participate

  On purpose start a little controversy – generate some different views, because learning comes from considering the differences

  Develop this attitude: you are not lecturing or telling them things – you are sharing what we have learned about helping people to avoid the natural human behaviours that lead people into danger

  Your job as safety training facilitator is not to persuade or convince or argue – just let the discussion run and ask lots of questions (“What do you think of that?” “Is that the best way forward?” “What would happen if we did that?” “Why do you think someone would do that?”)

  Do not worry about and argue with the occasional person “being difficult” and resisting the message – some people have difficulty accepting ultimate responsibility. However, several times I have experienced people who in a workshop have commented that “this behavioural stuff is a load of nonsense”, and on meeting them months later getting a positive response that they now understand

In summary

The objective in interactive safety training is to sow the seed. To make explicit what people know already deep down, that we are all ultimately responsible for our own safety. At the end of an interactive behavioural workshop people are under no illusion. They realise that, no matter what else is wrong, what is really hurting them, is one or more of:

  Lack of awareness (they did not see, smell or hear the hazard)

  Unreasonable pressure from supervisors or workmates (shouting, swearing, mocking, not giving enough time)

  Being afraid (afraid of upsetting the boss or workmates, afraid of looking stupid)

  Loss of concentration (through fatigue, worry or illness)

  Wrongly diminishing the risk (“We’ve done this fifty times before” or “The other crew did it”) Although it is difficult to measure, I have found that accident rates come down after people are exposed to this kind of interactivity and those five behavioural traps.