Does Your Safety Training Work?

Here's how to put your workplace safety programs to the test
by SKULI GUDMUNDSSON, CEO of OCCU-TEC Inc.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series:

Imagine having a standard report card available to measure the effectiveness of your company's safety training, one that allowed you to plug in A's, B's or C's in a matter of seconds. For human resources professionals, it would be a dream come true.

Unfortunately, such a barometer is only a dream. To gauge the impact of its safety training, a company must analyze a number of program variables, not to mention the bottom-line results. Although the evaluation requires some work, it is crucial to managing a safety process in today's work environment, where the reduction of employee injuries and lost time directly relates to an emphasis on quality and cost control.

Your analysis should include these four steps:

Review the original intent of the training program. Before you can scrutinize the results of your safety training, it's important to revisit the purpose of the program. All companies need safety training, regardless of size or industry. The reasons for such training usually fall into two categories:

  • To comply with regulations. Many training programs focus on complying with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines and other federal, state and local regulations. However, companies that implement safety training for this reason may be disappointed with the overall results: Some of the injury rates related to government standards may fall, but other work-related injuries may still be high. That's because OSHA's standards focus primarily on physical plant hazards and do not address other safety issues, such as teaching employees how to lift, push or pull.
  • To reduce injuries and lost time. The driving force behind many training programs is to reduce the cost of workers' compensation premiums and lost time due to workplace accidents and injuries. If you feel these efforts have fallen short to date, then either your employees are not applying the training to their jobs or your training was not appropriate in the first place.

Define the expected outcome. Next, determine whether the training is focused on changing a skill level, a behavior or an attitude. A program can only be effective if it has a clear goal, such as to require eye protection in all grinding operations or to enforce correct posture at computer terminals.

The most successful safety training focuses on changing employees' skills or behaviors. For example, the program may teach them how to operate machinery or lift objects properly (a common problem in workers' compensation claims). In the behavioral area, they may learn to keep work areas clean and uncluttered or not to wear jewelry or clothing that could get caught in machinery.

By contrast, attempts to change employees' attitudes through safety training often are misguided. Although an employer can insist on certain behaviors in the workplace, it cannot control all the variables that make up a person's attitude, such as his or her own background or personality conflicts with coworkers.

As you review your desired outcome, determine whether an attitude or behavioral problem is at issue. Is your company downsizing or in the midst of a merger? That may signal an attitude problem. Is there a record of past training on the use of certain machinery? That may signal a skill or behavior problem.

Examine the method of instruction. As a final step in the review process, determine whether the conditions for training were right in the first place. If the method of instruction, such as classroom lessons, on-the-job instruction or computer-based training, is incompatible with either the program's desired outcome or the audience, that's an early indication that the training may not have been successful.

Suppose the purpose is to teach workers how to operate a piece of equipment, yet the training takes place in a hotel conference room using video instruction and an operation manual, but without the equipment present. Chances are, the training will be ineffective. Conversely, if your focus is general shop safety and you combine a classroom setting with on-the-job training, you're likely to be leaving more of an impression.

Put the program to the test. Once you've examined the variables involved in safety training, it's time to measure the results. What have your employees learned? How has the training impacted the bottom line?

Evaluate Using the Kirkpatric Model

A widely used model for evaluating training programs was developed in 1959 by Donald L. Kirkpatrick and presented in Evaluating Training Programs: The Four Levels (Berrett-Koehler, 1994). Although the "Kirkpatrick model" has been refined over time, it still serves as the evaluation standard. Here are the four levels:

Level 1: Student "smile sheets." At this stage, the company simply asks trainees for their reactions to the training program. Their comments in a post-training survey can provide some basic information on the program's effectiveness, such as whether the type of training provided was appropriate for the task. However, smile sheets do not evaluate the transfer of knowledge.

Level 2: Pre- and post-training testing. Prior to training, test the students to establish a baseline of knowledge. The best approach is to give them a written test on the morning of the training session. Based on these scores, the trainer can adapt the session to employees' current level of understanding and beyond.

At the end of the training program, retest employees to gauge what they learned. This testing might consist of a written exam or a physical demonstration of safety procedures and proper behavior, such as using correct posture at a computer terminal.

Level 3: Behavioral changes on the job. Smile sheets and written tests provide some level of measurement, but if the students do not apply their new knowledge on the job, then the training has wasted everyone's time.

Your method of monitoring on-the-job performance does not have to be complicated, but it should be consistent. For training new skills or behaviors, such as operating equipment or lifting objects properly, set up a schedule to observe employees and ensure they are applying their new knowledge. Then compare those observations of on-the-job performance with accident records related to the operation of that equipment or the number of back injuries reported.

Level 4: Business results. Ultimately, senior managers expect safety training to have a positive impact on the bottom line. You can gauge the business results in several ways: Track your company's workers' compensation claims before and after the training, and determine if the number of accidents and injuries related to the subject of the safety training is down. While these results are sometimes difficult to measure, most experts agree that if Level 3 was achieved, Level 4 results will follow.

Part 2 of this series will describe how to develop a Safety Training Program.

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