Doing It Right: Investing in Basic Skills Training Is a Key to A Safe Workplace

 Contextual Training

By Phil La Duke

An efficient workplace is typically a safe workplace. Injuries are a cost waste—last week on the Rockford Greene International website I spent a fair amount of digital ink exploring the many direct and indirect costs associated with injuries.  When workers are injured the company has effectively invested in hurting workers and the investment yields nothing of value.  Hurting workers is bad business. Few will contest the waste that is endemic to worker injuries. But preventing injuries has become a cottage industry and despite the billions companies spend in this pursuit; despite all the convoluted models and onerous infrastructures scarce few organizations are any closer to figuring things out.

I learned a long time ago that when faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem the best thing to do is to return to the basics.  Several weeks ago I posted my take on the pillars of an effective safety management system but I didn’t really have the space to explore these pillars in detail.

There are five kinds of training that are important for creating an efficient and safe workplace: On boarding, core business skills, problem solving, technical competency, and regulatory training.

On Boarding

On boarding is the cutesy term Human Resources give to the period from the time of hire to the first 90 days or so on the job.  Effective on boarding (formerly called new employee orientation) is critical—it creates the strongest sense of the corporate values that employees will ever get.  New employees have a strong desire to learn the corporate norms and conform to them. On boarding is more than walking the new employee through the new hire paperwork, effective on boarding will introduce the workers to the expectations the organization has for safety.

On boarding is easy to screw up. Workers understand that what the company SAYS is important isn’t always what it rewards and reinforces.  The tone and values communicated in the on boarding process generally are more powerful than any other form of training.  Presentations by speakers and time spent in the classroom should be a very small portion of this kind of training. And veteran coworkers should be prepared to reinforce the standards and safe practices.  In fact, preparing veterans for their roles in on boarding new employees is an ideal way to reconnect them to safe practices from which they may have drifted.

Core Business Skills

It’s mind boggling how many companies ignore the need for their workers to have a basic understanding of how the business makes money. Years ago, I travelled to Communist Hungary where I provided, among other things, training in the business of manufacturing.  Workers can only be a meaningful part of process improvement and world-class operations when they have an application-level understanding of the practical considerations of operating a business in a given economic sector.  While companies are often quick to dismiss potential vendors because they lack insufficient experience in a business sector, these same organizations are content to hire workers who possess only the most marginal experience in their industry. Beyond the obvious, and oft repeated, need for worker to possess the core skills required of their jobs, training is also essential for workers to participate in problem solving, understanding the subtle nuances of their jobs, and to truly internalize the risks associated with their jobs.

Providing core business skills to all employees typically pays handsomely. Years ago I remember a study (from Harvard Review I think) that claimed that businesses tend to see a 35:1 return ratio for training (that means they saw a return on investment of $35 for every dollar spent.) Of course that ratio is only as good as the training, and there is a lot of crap out there so businesses should really retain only the most skilled and competent training providers.

Problem Solving

Perhaps the most overlooked training that has an important role in making the workplace safer is Problem Solving training.  Good problem solving training should provide analytic skills that workers can use to spot potential hazards, contain them, and recommend ways to correct the issues and prevent them from recurring. Problem solving teaches workers to think and to look for ways to improve the business. Toyoda, Drucker, Deming, et al believed that workers were the best source for improvement ideas. After all, they reasoned, those closest to the most basic business processes are best equipped to make informed suggestions for process improvement.

Technical Competency

When I joined the workforce of a Big Three automotive company in 1985, the extent to which I was trained was my boss handing me an air gun and telling me where to drive the screws to build the front seats for luxury cars. I grew up on a farm and had no occasion to work with compressed air-driven wrenches. I did my best and after months of self-instruction I managed to do a passable job.  I learned safety like most people, through near misses, injuries both minor and recordable, and anecdotes shared by veterans. This was a poor way to train new employees, but the company—like most companies of that time period—reckoned that training was a waste of money and valuable time. No one equated the skill level with which I did my job with the quality or safety with which I performed it. My quality was questionable and the fact that I was injured now and again was thought to be expected.

Training workers such that they masterfully perform their jobs.  When workers perform their jobs with mastery-level competency not only they are capable of working more safely, they tend to value safe work as part of their mastery.

Regulatory Training

Regulatory training is important for more than checking a box. Regulatory training should provide workers with important information that they need to do their jobs.  But regulatory training that is completed in good faith, presented contextually, and connected to meaningful parts of the worker’s jobs also send the message that organization is deeply concerned about safety for safety’s sake.

Training On Purpose

Too many people mistakenly believe that training can just happen. Training should be the tactical response to a strategic initiative  not an after thought or a cursory event. And training should be a lot more formalized than most safety people believe, and should be tracked and occasionally reviewed in the context in which it is most appropriate (for example confined space training should be conducted in a confined space for example. Training should be tracked by the safety professional—not just safety training—all training; it is essential that first line supervision has a complete understanding of the competency of each worker.  Safety professionals should work with the training professionals to assess the risk points of the job and together craft learning solutions that address the areas of greatest risk.

Training should focus on hazard recognition so that all workers can vigilantly approach the identification and containment of the hazards of their work areas. Only when workers have been trained in the safest ways in which to perform their tasks by providing them with good foundational training in the tasks they are routinely expected to do can the organization ensure that workers achieve some modicum of safety.


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