Of the many problems that keep Safety Managers awake at night, the quandary of making safety training ‘stick’ is one that is often close by.
This is because safety training, and indeed training in general suffers from a poor success rate – as little as 10% of what is learned during training is used by employees when they return to work (Cromwell & Kolb, 2004; Lim & Morris, 2006). In short, the return on training investment can be underwhelming and in some cases, actually cost organisations more than they get back.
Gone are the days of multimillion dollar learning and development funds. In today’s contemporary business world, resources for discretionary spends such as safety training are starting to evaporate and are being looked upon with increasing scrutiny. Safety Managers will find it increasingly difficult to secure training budgets without identifying the specific outcomes that are going to be achieved and providing assurances of both short and long term success.
Fortunately, safety scientists have demonstrated that safety training works. Over the past 30 years, literally hundreds of studies have been conducted to evaluate the outcomes and results of safety training, ranging from technical safety training, to behaviour-based safety programmes, to ergonomic interventions.
Averaged across all this work, the resounding result is that safety training leads to improved safety behaviour and most importantly, fewer occupational injuries (Burke et al, 2006). The only catch is that safety training has to be designed and implemented correctly for the effects to be realised, and in turn, guarantee organisations a positive return on their investment.
The problem is that the fruits of this training transfer research have yet to be disseminated across industries and applied specifically to the safety training context. Granted, many organisations are starting to tune into the concept of ‘training transfer’, yet to date there remains a dearth of practical strategies that organisations can implement to maximise this transfer and increase the impact of training.
In the safety domain, work has only just commenced on this important practical issue. This work is urgently required given that thousands of employees continue to be hurt and killed (International Labour Organization, or ILO, 2008), and that most employees who experience a safety incident have actually received some prior training in safe work practises (Australian Bureau of Statistics, or ABS, 2010). To make further gains to safety, we need to ensure that safety training has a positive and lasting impact on the thinking and behaviour of employees.
What makes safety training unique?
What makes safety training different to other types of employee training, and hence worthy of specific study by safety researchers? We believe there are six key features of safety training that sets it apart:
• Employees often hold pre-existing attitudes, beliefs, and values about safety, which are formed through life experiences
• Employees typically have prior experiences using certain safety behaviours, which may result in deeply automated patterns such as habits
• Some types of safety training are mandatory and regulated by the government
• There is usually only minimal opportunity to practise using learned concepts during and after safety training
• Safety training is conducted within a particular safety-specific work context, e.g. safety culture
• There can be potentially significant – and negative – consequences if an employee does not transfer what is learned during safety training
These features carry important implications for the design and implementation of safety training. For example, the fact that employees have pre-existing attitudes towards safety may reduce their readiness to engage in training programmes, such as where safety is not valued or considered secondary to other goals such as quality or speed.
In addition, an absence of suitable opportunities to practise what is learned during safety training can lead to poor knowledge retention and skill decay. Finally, as safety training is conducted within a certain social context – that being the organisation’s safety climate and culture – safety may be perceived as more or less valued by the organisation, which is likely to affect transfer.
In sum, the unique characteristics of safety training require us to identify the employee, training design, and organisational factors that contribute specifically to safety training transfer.
To understand these implications in sufficient detail to design practical strategies that increase training transfer, we draw on an evidence-based model. This model defines the factors that contribute to an employee’s readiness to apply what he/she learns during safety training, and subsequently, the extent to which learned skills and concepts are put into practise on return to the workplace. We explore each of these factors further in the next section.
Numerous studies have shown that employee characteristics, e.g. attitudes, beliefs, values, and traits such as personality, predict learning during training, which in turn predicts motivation and confidence to apply trained concepts and skills in the workplace (Colquitt et al, 2000).
Given the importance of an employee’s thinking patterns in determining whether he/she is likely to follow safe work practises and hence avoid injuries, it follows that they may also be related to an employee’s readiness to participate in safety training. An employee who values safety is more likely to feel motivated to participate in safety training and remain engaged throughout, resulting in greater learning. Moreover, if the employee also possesses an internal locus of control – essentially, a strong belief that personal actions result in desired outcomes – learned safety skills are more likely to be used post-training because the employee believes that this action will have a positive effect on safety.
The way safety training is structured and delivered is not only related to transfer of learning, but is also readily accessible to organisations and possibly the easiest way to improve training ROI. To be effective at achieving an organisation’s objectives, safety training must be designed in a way that adequately prepares employees for participation (pre-implementation), maximises learning and skill development (implementation), and embeds learned concepts into employees’ minds and job roles (maintenance). There are similarities between unsafe behaviour and other types of negative health behaviours such as smoking and unhealthy eating. In these situations, behaviours are associated with negative events that may or may not occur at some distant point in the future. Considering neuroscience principles, we know that this type of rationale for engaging in safe and healthy behaviour is plagued by cognitive biases (Fellows, 2004), making effective decisions and sustained changes difficult. Psychological theories propose that before making such a marked change, people need to be convinced that it is worthwhile to do so.
Fortunately, some clever training design features can achieve this goal.
Safety training is delivered using methods that can be passive, e.g. lectures, instructional videos, or interactive, e.g. role-plays, demonstrations. It is widely recognised that certain training methods foster trainee engagement and motivation more than others. Specifically, a recent meta-analysis (the average impact of safety training across multiple studies) found that employee learning and transfer is highest when the delivery method is engaging (Burke et al, 2006). So, for safety training to stick, it needs to involve employees actively in the learning process.
Assuming that employees have learned something useful, and feel motivated and confident to use it, having sufficient opportunities to apply this learning on return to the workplace is crucial for training transfer (Burke & Hutchins, 2007; Lim & Johnson, 2002). For these opportunities to arise, the employee must be able to recognise instances when the training can be applied and his/her job (e.g. workload, job autonomy, availability of resources) must permit the training to be applied.
Use of safety training can be particularly difficult to encourage post-programme, given that the situations it relates to can be dangerous or impractical to replicate, some safety skills are only infrequently relevant to the job, and work priorities such as production demands usually take precedence over practising what has been learned during training.
In addition to the safety culture and climate, which signal to employees how important and valued safety actually is across a company, the level of social support provided by managers, supervisors, and co-workers to apply safety training is also a critical training transfer success factor.
Our research programme in safety training transfer has identified specific behaviours that each of these roles can demonstrate to foster ongoing motivation to use learned concepts and skills (Chen et al, 2013; Krauss et al, 2013). Without this post-training follow-up and ongoing support, learning decays and skills become less effective. Indeed, the influence of implicit social rules or ‘norms’ has long been recognised as an important predictor of safety performance (Fugas et al, 2012) – employees’ perceptions of what other people do and think about safety can determine whether someone chooses to test out a new skill or default to older and less effective behaviours.
Our research with organisations in safety-critical industries has revealed four essential leader behaviours that promote the transfer of safety training (Chen et al, 2013). Through opportunities such as team meetings, in-field observations, and site visits, leaders can exert a positive effect on employees’ application of learned safety skills. Specifically, leaders should aim to achieve the following objectives:
• Help employees to develop a shared understanding of safety training concepts and terminology
• Role model effective use of trained concepts and skills across all levels of leadership so that training is embedded firmly within the fabric of the organisation’s activities
• Facilitate opportunities for team members to discuss trained concepts
• Recognise and praise team members who use safety training in the workplace
Understanding the nature of these factors is advantageous for organisations seeking to maximise safety training transfer. Over and above the flow-on effects to safety performance via employees using what they learned, and increased ROI, effective safety training may also produce unexpected benefits such as increased employee engagement, a more positive and strong safety climate, and spill-over effects into other work areas such as quality and productivity. Importantly, our research suggests that there are several strategies that organisations can implement to achieve these objectives.
Increase safety training transfer
First and foremost, safety training needs to be considered as more than an isolated event – for successful training transfer to occur, the learning process must commence before participants step foot in the classroom. This means that Safety Advisors and Managers, as well as trainers play an important role in preparing employees for their upcoming learning experience. Some strategies that could be implemented before safety training include the following:
• Clearly communicate the objectives of the training as well as observable and realistic changes that the training is meant to create back in the workplace
• Ensure that all levels of leadership, from executive to frontline, participate in the safety training programme, even a reduced form, so that the concepts and skills can be driven meaningfully from the top down
• Facilitate coaching/mentoring of frontline leaders by middle or senior managers in techniques to encourage workers’ transfer of safety training, e.g. providing feedback more effectively, dealing with resistance among more experienced workers
From decades of research we know that the design and delivery of safety training has a sizeable effect on transfer. Importantly, the fruits of this research and our own investigations suggest that there are specific actions that organisations can take during safety training to bolster transfer. Some of these actions include:
• Identify and discuss specific and relevant examples of when the training concepts could be applied at work
• Identify and discuss the potential barriers, e.g. lack of time, inadequate resources, production pressure, to using the training on return to work
• Design the programme to include multiple opportunities for participants to interact socially, e.g. group discussions, role-plays
Of equal importance to maximising safety training transfer are post-training actions. Following participation, organisations need to work hard to crystallise learning and facilitate employees’ use of learned skills and concepts on the job. Accordingly, after safety training organisations should consider doing the following:
• Use safety meetings and pre-starts to refresh training concepts and terminology
• Identify ‘coaches’ responsible for ongoing championing of training concepts within the workplace
• Support safety knowledge retention by providing employees with follow-up exercises and activities
For companies operating in the Middle East region, there are additional training transfer challenges that must be surmounted. Specifically, individual factors such as pre-existing safety attitudes and beliefs tend to vary by cultural heritage, with some cultures more predisposed to adopting less helpful safety thinking patterns than others (Lu et al, 2012).
Also, national culture has been shown to influence the relationship between training design and transfer, with cultures high in ‘uncertainty avoidance’ (preference for structure, order, and predictability) tending to experience lower transfer than other cultures, and also are less likely to use engaging methods to deliver safety training, reducing its effectiveness (Burke et al, 2008).
Finally, some companies may have social contexts that do not adequately support the transfer of safety training. Whether due to lack of resources/management support for safety, a culturally diverse workforce, or less sophisticated safety management systems, the safety climate and culture of some organisations may be less positive and weaker than desired for optimal training transfer. Indeed, more research into safety training transfer generally, and within the Middle Eastern context specifically, is urgently required to grapple with and address these issues.
Although training transfer is a thoroughly researched component of training success, the practical steps that organisations can take to increase transfer are less understood. Given the unique characteristics of safety training as compared to other types of ‘traditional’ employee training (e.g. computer skills training), it is vital that Safety, HR, and Learning/Development Managers work together to design an implementation strategy that draws on their specialties and experiences, and incorporates the latest science around training transfer. Only by adopting this approach and importantly, treating safety training as much more than a one-off classroom learning event can organisations in safety-critical industries reap the benefits from their investments in employee development.
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Published: 25th Feb 2014 in Health and Safety Middle East