What are the secrets to a great safety training program?

What are the keys to a good, nay, great health and safety training program? And what does the future of safety training look like?

What are the secrets to a great safety training program?
Tech has to push [OH&S training] forward and I think if we don’t take advantage of it then we’re making a mistake.

Safety training is where everything starts. It is the beginning, the first step an aspiring safety professional will make in the OH&S sector. There are many moving parts to a good health and safety program.

There are various places, and various ways, to learn about occupational health and safety. The first thing that springs to mind might be a training course or a university diploma. Becoming a safety professional is becoming more and more of a career choice, and, in recent years, more and more options are available to those wishing to pursue this path.

Leigh Ann Blunt, school chair and safety professor with the University of Central Missouri, says there are some differences between a university program and a training program. But, in both, you are “taking a look at new things around the corner — you can’t do training about something that’s going to be replaced.”

For those looking to create training programs, it can be a bit difficult to know exactly where to start and which components should build an effective program.

In 2014, Glyn Jones, a partner at Calgary-based EHS Partnerships and a COS columnist, wrote a piece entitled “8 elements of an effective training program.” Since then, the article has become one of our most-read stories and a reference that OH&S specialists keep coming back to consult because it is an essential part of the industry and because an effective training program makes all the different between a good OH&S specialist and a great one. It has been a few years since the piece came out, and a lot has changed since then — even in the past few months! COS caught up with Jones and a few other specialists for an update.

So, what are the key features of a good training program? Here are nine key things that should be considered for a successful health and safety training program.

1. Establish the basics
Above all else, “the basics remain,” Jones says, and those wishing to create a program should ensure that “proper learning outcomes are established to be sure everyone knows what we are trying to achieve and then a series of directed, self-directed and group activities to allow for exposure to the material; analysis of significance and incorporation with learners’ existing knowledge and understanding.” These really are the basics, and we will cover them further down.

Additionally, he says, we need to recognize that we will always have learners with different learning styles (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) and need to be sure that we offer the content multiple times and in different ways appropriate for each learner style.

2. Identify the learner’s needs
Indeed, for any kind of educational program, it is key to understand what the learner expects and what the learner needs to take away from the course.

Dave Rebbitt, president of Calgary-based Rarebit Consulting, says the “key features of a good training program are based on the overall training process. The training program should clearly identify the training needs or what needs to be trained. This often involves conducting an assessment to understand what it is people must know or must be able to do when they complete the training program.”

This, he says, helps keep the training program focused.

Blunt says that, “either way you look at it, you’ve got to have clear-focused objectives that are measurable.” You also need to have a good trainer, she says.

On the learner side of things, Blunt says that “they really need to want to be there. It is obvious when someone is going through the motions, it sends the wrong message. They need to be effective communicators and determine if the other person understood what you said.”

Training programs and educational courses need to be able to adapt to their learners, says Blunt. “This ‘one size fits all’ is problematic if you want everyone to learn.”

3. Vary means of delivery
As Jones says, there need to be different components and ways of delivering the material.

A good training program should also involve several styles of training delivery (lecture style, group discussion, group interaction, etc.), says Rebbitt. “A good training program produces the desired result,” he says. “That means that people who have completed the training program have learned the new skill or retain the knowledge even at a later time and are able to complete the task or tasks associated with the training competently.”

4. Do not forget followup
It is important that, after all this effort is put into teaching, the learner has fully understood the course material. This means, says Rebbitt, that training programs should follow up to gauge whether people are actually applying their new skills or knowledge effectively.

“Any good training program always includes some kind of knowledge check and skill check. For example, someone who is taking a simple course on something like hazard assessments should be able to demonstrate they can actually produce a hazard assessment at the end of the course. This is to demonstrate that they have retained and can apply the knowledge,” says Rebbitt.

 “When it’s specific training, they need to be able to demonstrate and articulate what it was they learned,” says Blunt.

5. Keep up with changes
Although Jones says there have not necessarily been any legislative changes that would have a major impact on training, “there are many OHS legislative jurisdictions in Canada, one for every province and territory and one federal framework. There are changes happening all the time… The OHS safety certifying bodies do have an impact on what universities teach.”

As well as being the president of Rarebit Consulting, Rebbitt also develops and instructs courses at the University of Alberta OHS program. Rebbitt concurs with Jones and says that “there haven't really been any recent training developments.” But, he says, “There have been some legislative changes in Alberta and B.C. over the past few years that require health and safety committee or representative training.”

Jones, who provides program design and instructional support to the University of New Brunswick’s OH&S certificate and diploma programs, says the Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professionals (BCRSP) has announced a change in its exam blueprint so that it can align with the International Network of Safety and Health Practitioner Organizations. If all goes to plan, BCRSP plans to administer the first exam developed from this new blueprint in February 2021.

“BCRSP is working on a training standard for health and safety practitioners,” says Rebbitt. “A completed educational standard would be used to certify the current educational programs in Canada for recognition by BCRSP.”

 “We are careful to make sure that a course is current,” says Blunt. She adds that they struggle to have textbooks that are current, for example, and are careful to supplement using daily true-time information. You have to be ready for when things change, she says, and you have to pay attention and have opportunities for individuals in the safety and health arena that fundamentally allow them to look at the broader picture.

“More and more, we are seeing companies [that] are requiring degreed individuals,” says Blunt. “I think that trend is going to continue — especially with what is going on right now [COVID-19]. You’ve got to have certified, competent people and a knowledge base important to the profession.”

Training is becoming more and more developed. “Post-secondary institutions are bringing more rigour to the trading and there is much less reliance on classroom training there… There is a growing recognition that health and safety professionals need substantial training and learning,” says Rebbitt.

6. Include a practical component
“Courses that are skill heavy, there must be performance-based testing where a person has to demonstrate they can apply the skills taught in the course,” says Rebbitt. “A good example of this is first aid training. There is a knowledge test, but there is also a practical test or a performance-based test to have people demonstrate that they can actually respond to an emergency and provide first aid. Where a course is teaching any sort of skill, it is important to have a competency verification process.”

In a university setting, this is also important, says Blunt. “It may vary by university, but we have various programs that require an internship or a workplace project. There are a number of programs that do not have internships… It is an important factor for companies, and a lot of those companies use those internships as a trial period. A lot of times they do that when they have job openings.”

Adds Blunt, “It’s definitely an important thing. There should be some kind of practical aspect to anything that’s over a job that you’re physically going to do.”

7. Integrate online learning
Online learning is one thing that keeps cropping up in conversations. In this current environment, says Blunt, “the online component is going to have to be beefed up [as] it allows opportunities for people who need more time to take more time. It doesn’t matter if they took a little longer.”

In fact, OH&S training may go one step further and even start to incorporate augmented or virtual reality in its teaching.

“Sometimes, the student has never seen that piece of machinery before, but if you provide virtual or augmented reality, they can become familiar with it before seeing it in the real world,” says Blunt. “I think [virtual reality] is going to get better and it’s going to get cheaper.”

One big change in the last few years is that online learning has become a bigger and bigger part of OH&S training. “The major change [in the last few years] is that learners are much more accepting of online, just-in-time education and training,” says Jones. “Online collaboration has been made easier and learners now know how to use most online applications. Also, there remains a push to the ‘micro-modulization’ of content into bite-sized pieces that take 10 to 30 minutes to go over.”

Online learning offers many advantages, notably the ability for workers to go at their own pace and to take micro-modules that last a few minutes as a way to refresh their training. Workers can also do these modules whenever and wherever they want, taking away the constraints of a traditional classroom. 

Jones also says that we now have access to multiple media to use as tools and “we need to recognize changing habits of learners and their desire for more just-in-time and bite-sized learning.”

“I think OH&S training has evolved in several ways,” say Rebbitt. “Firstly, OHS training has really gone more digital and so there is much more online training than there used to be. Companies are leveraging digital technology to deliver simple training like orientation training… The expanded use of visual aids and videos assists in reducing the amount of time required for training.”

“Tech has to push [OH&S training] forward and I think, if we don’t take advantage of it, then we’re making a mistake,” says Blunt.

8. Do not forget about mental well-being
In conversation with many OH&S experts, one thing that frequently pops up is the growing importance of mental health in the workplace and mental health awareness as part of occupational health and safety training.

Dr. Geoffrey Soloway, founder and chief training officer at Mindwell-U, says that mental health and mindfulness is “coming into the workplace as part of professional training.”

“What’s the number one reason for accidents in the workplace? It’s the lack of attention… it’s the root cause of accidents in the workplace,” he says. It is important to talk about mental health as a fundamental aspect of workplace health and safety. Soloway says mental health is an integral part of the job and that it is essential to train one’s mind before going onto the worksite.

For example, workers can use their onsite prep time to refocus, to ground themselves and to focus their attention. All of this could be included in OH&S training. This, Soloway says, can come in the form of “Take Five,” for example. This practice is all about noticing cues and senses and connecting back with the body, with one’s breathing.

It is key to highlight the practical applications of good mental health training and the fact that it can be applied across the board to every workplace.

9. Never stop learning
Health and safety practiioners should “always be learning and always be open to new opportunities for gaining knowledge or skills,” says Rebbitt.

And there are specific things on which OH&S professionals should have retraining, says Rebbitt. “It is generally accepted that, every three years, specific courses would have to be repeated. Health and safety practitioners who hold a CRSP or CRST designation must demonstrate not only continuing professional practice but continuous learning. Every five years, they must submit a worksheet on what they have done to maintain their competency.”

He says that, “for CRSPs and CRSTs, this is a points system and so points are awarded for things like professional practice, speaking at conferences, taking courses, attending seminars and other things that would keep someone engaged in the profession and continually learning. This sort of thing is becoming more common and there are not very many designations these days that do not require some form of continuous professional development.”

Blunt concurs. “I think that [learning] needs to be a continual process, it should never stop. But depending on what you are doing that may be every year, every three years. Here, we rotate courses to add benefit and value with fresh eyes, and most safety managers should seek out opportunities to attend conferences and workshops.

“If you have a course with a syllabus that hasn’t been changed in four years, then you have a problem,” says Blunt.

Although there are many other aspects to consider when building a training program, depending on a host of variables, the aforementioned are the fundamentals. They are the essential aspects to consider when conceiving an innovative, effective program that should successfully train safety-minded individuals keen to make a difference.