“I wish we had more safety training.”  — No one. Ever.

Have you ever had a coworker respond, “You are so lucky,” when you told them that you had some mandatory safety training coming up? No?

When it comes to safety training, isn’t the word “mandatory” redundant? Have you ever attended or even been offered voluntary safety training?

Safety training is supposed to make us live healthier, safer, and longer. So why do most of us hate safety training so much?

Training the Trainers

I recently attended three days of OSHA training: the OSHA 503 course, Update for General Industry Outreach Trainers. People who are authorized to teach General Industry 10-hour training or the General Industry 30-hour are required to take OSHA 503 at least once every four years to retain their authorization. Given the time it takes and its cost, the course is not something I would take if I didn’t have to. But teaching others about occupational safety is way I can make the world a safer place, so I’m glad I am able to do it.

I was first authorized in 1998, so I’ve been through a lot of these update courses. In years past, the update was focused on changes to the OSHA general regulations that had occurred during the previous four years. This was to assure that our students were getting the most current information.

This time, though, there was a different focus.  The course covered updates to regulations, as expected, but the focus of this safety training course was more on training than on safety. To my great satisfaction, I learned a lot about giving effective training for adults. I hope I will be better at it and thought that it would be useful to share some of what I learned.

Mandatory Safety Training

Just about all safety training in the workplace is mandated, mostly by OSHA. Look at any OSHA regulation and you will typically find a paragraph requiring training. When OSHA re-wrote Subpart D – Walking-Working Surfaces and implemented it in 2017, they added a whole new section, 29 CFR 1910.30, dedicated to training requirements.

OSHA sometimes stipulates that the training must be “understandable” or “effective”. It always requires that the training be given before an employee is exposed to the relevant hazard, and whenever circumstances change. In the case of the Process Safety Management (PSM) standard (29 CFR 1910.119), OSHA mandates that operators receive initial training and refresher training at least once every three years, and that the means to verify understanding be documented.  Usually that means a written quiz.

The PSM standard mandates training in five of the fourteen elements of PSM: (g) [Operator] Training, (h) Contractors, (j) Mechanical Integrity, (l) Management of Change, and (m) Incident Investigation. It also addresses training in (i) Pre-Startup Safety Review, just to make sure that the training requirements in the other elements are addressed.

Failure to conduct any required training and to document the training as required can result in a citation and fine. To make matters worse, the requirements for training and documentation differ from one regulation to another.

No pressure.

Why Do Trainers Hate Safety Training?

Safety training takes time. Not just the time that trainees are tied up in training, but the time to prepare the training, the time to schedule the training, and the time to document and track the training.

Safety training is rarely a priority for the departments whose personnel need the training. If a plant disruption occurs during the time the training is scheduled, it is a rare organization that would say, “Well, let’s just shut down until this training is complete, because safety training is our top priority.”

Safety trainers are typically selected for their knowledge and experience with safety, not for their knowledge and experience with training adults. In their hearts, most safety trainers suspect that safety training could be much more effective if they had a chance to be better prepared to do it.

The main reason that trainers hate safety training, though, is that they know the trainees don’t want to be there. Instead of feeling like they are making a difference in the safety of the workplace, most trainers end up feeling like prison wardens, more concerned about assuring each inmate serves their sentence than in making the world a safer place.

Why Do Trainees Hate Safety Training?

One of the most valuable exercises during the OSHA 503 course was when the instructor split the class into groups and asked us to list the characteristics of good training and bad training. Not surprisingly, the groups came up with similar lists.

Good training is relevant, engaging, and interactive. Good trainers are enthusiastic, passionate, and prepared. Being knowledgeable came up, but it wasn’t on everyone’s list, and it was at the bottom of the lists it was on. I was reminded of what Teddy Roosevelt said. “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

As a class, we had much more to say about bad training and bad trainers. Bad training is boring, compulsory, repetitive, and punitive. Bad trainers are unprepared and distracted, speak in a monotone, and often seem arrogant or dismissive of their students.

Unfortunately, most safety training shares more of the characteristics of bad training than of good training. If most safety training is boring, compulsory, repetitive, and feels like punishment, and is given by trainers who resent having to give the training, is there any surprise that trainees hate safety training?

Ways to Make Training Better

During the OSHA training I completed, I learned four guides for effective adult learning:

  1. Rely on and acknowledge the experiences of the trainees.
  2. Make the training real and immediately applicable
  3. Those who do, learn
  4. Learning is directly proportional to fun

Unlike children at school, who have little knowledge or experience of their own, adult learners bring a wealth of personal experience to the training they attend. Effective training taps into that experience. The exercise where we came up with our own lists of good and bad training is a good example of that. It is much easier to retain a lesson that is consistent with what you already know.

Also, unlike children at school, who trust that what their teachers are telling them will eventually be applicable, adults, who have real world problems pounding at their door, want to see that their training is applicable to their current concerns. Exercises that relate training to immediate issues will reinforce the training and make retention much more likely.

The purpose of safety training is to help people to be safe. There is a difference between knowing about safety and being safe. And the best way to learn to do something is to do it. Exercises that give learners a chance to do will always make learning more effective than simply listening.

The last guide comes from the Bob Pike Group. In their words, “The sheer joy of learning can come from involvement and participation…Humor can aid enormously in reducing stress and anxiety, especially when it comes to learning. And a more relaxed atmosphere means more openness to learning.” Being fun doesn’t mean that a trainer has to be funny. It means that there should be joy in the training.

Not What You Expect

Sadly, many of us give us safety training the same way received it—from safety trainers who were specialists in safety but not well versed in training. It was boring, repetitive, and monotone, given by trainers who didn’t want to be there any more than we did. It’s what we were taught to expect.

Safety training, however, has the potential to make a huge difference in the safety of the workplace. Well, effective safety training does. To be effective, though, it requires the same dedication to what works as anything else we do.

You Control the Training You Give

When trainees fail to retain and apply the lessons of their safety training, it is very tempting to blame them for not learning. When they fall asleep in a training class, is it because they don’t care about safety, or because the training isn’t reaching them. Trainees have no control over the training they receive. That is completely up to the trainer

As a safety trainer, you are in control of the training that you give. You are only successful as a trainer when your trainees leave your training prepared to be safer. If you are not satisfied that the training you give is as effective as it could be, as it needs to be, think about how you can change it. You are the only one who can.