Safety Education: The Method Is the Message

Occupational Hazards, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Safety Education: The Method Is the Message


Many companies are discovering that how they do safety and health education is just as important as what they teach.

More than 100 OSHA regulations oblige companies to train their workers, and there are plenty of training programs designed to comply with these requirements. Yet, many businesses are discovering that a more ambitious approach to safety and health training that goes beyond compliance, even if it is more expensive in the short term, can yield a big long-term payoff. In the process, they are using more interactive training methods to make safety training more productive and even entertaining.

At New Hampshire Ball Bearings Inc. (NHBB) in Peterborough, N.H., the company is using its safety training to support a cultural shift toward employee empowerment, according to human resources manager Carole Reid.

"Getting our work force to understand they [are] self-empowered" is at the heart of the effort, Reid said. "We want to help them understand [that] their destiny is in their own hands."

Reid said her previous experience with safety training had come from loss control people at the company's workers' compensation carrier. It was a one-size-fits-all approach focused on being in compliance with OSHA, and it had yielded limited results.

"There was an hour session in the morning, an hour session in the afternoon, and they were out of here," she said.

Facilities manager Patti Carrier uses the word "education" rather than "training" in describing what the ball bearings plant sought. While traditional training programs often assume that simply imparting information will lead to behavioral change, newer approaches try to get workers actively involved in learning. This way, they will understand the hazards and take responsibility for changing their behavior and the work site itself.

For example, the company decided to take a proactive approach toward ergonomics because of the proposed OSHA standard and because the plant has assembly operations with material handling that raise many ergonomic issues. "We were trying to figure out how we could get employees engaged in ergonomics," Carrier said.

The company hired the Windham Group, a Bedford, N.H., consulting firm that specializes in "psychosocial ergonomics." The ergonomics training provided by Windham was more expensive, but what it provided could not be more different from the standard lecture-style training Reid's company was used to.

The first thing the consultants did was to spend a day and a half evaluating the workplace so that, once they began to teach, they could use site-specific material. Carrier said that using concrete examples drawn from the plant helped workers relate better to the training program.

The training was quite interactive, according to Carrier. The teachers would explain ergonomic risk factors and immediately put up a picture of someone from the plant in a certain position. The workers were asked to say what risks were present and how they could be remedied.

Windham Group consultant Kurt Rever explained that most stand-up presentations address only auditory learners. "In our stand-up sessions, we address the auditory, visual and rote, or repetitive, learning styles," he said. Using a variety of approaches reduces classroom tedium and increases the odds that workers will latch on to the new information.

"Use it or lose it" is a phrase that sums up some of the research on adult learning. Unless new information is applied, research shows, it will be forgotten. The Windham Group's emphasis on engaging the learner has improved knowledge retention, according to Carrier.

"The trainers encouraged employees to talk amongst themselves and to look out for each other back at their work stations," she said. If they could not correct the hazards on their own, they were encouraged to seek help from a supervisor.

In addition, the Windham Group combined the traditional classroom with what Rever called "the walking classroom. …

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