Is Your Crappy Training Killing People?


By Phil La Duke

As many of you read this, someone somewhere in the world is preparing to deliver a safety training. Maybe it’s the Monday morning new hire safety orientation, or maybe it’s something more specific on hazard communication or some other aspect of safety. What all these courses have in common is they do little more than to feed the instructor’s ego and deluded sense of self-importance.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of you reading this are familiar with the saying “death by PowerPoint” but for those of you who may not be, “death by PowerPoint” refers to the practice of sitting bored senseless while someone does a four to eight hour soliloquy about the minute (and let’s face it useless) details of a topic you neither need nor care to know. At first your just bored, and then bored and angry, and so on until you are completely checked out.

Having sat through eight hours of the crapiest safety training yesterday—training I neither needed nor derived from which I derived any meaningful benefit—I have come to the realization that when it comes to safety training “death by PowerPoint” is more than a mere figure of speech, it could be prophetic.

My first published article on worker safety was “What’s Wrong With Safety Training and How to Fix It”. That was 10 years ago and if anything the situation has gotten worse.

If training isn’t effective it heightens the risk that a worker will be injured or killed and yet scarce little is done to improve safety. A lot can be done to improve safety training starting with:

  • Needs Assessment. In some cases OSHA dictates that specific training be delivered to workers, but it very often doesn’t identify the objectives the training must have, rather it errs on the side of duration. This leaves the trainer a lot of latitude, but it doesn’t absolve the company from providing EVERYONE x hours of training on a given topic. So what ends up happening is that the trainers treat everyone the same—I have had to take courses of which I have literally written and facilitated a dozen times or more, why? Because that’s the rule. The government agencies of the world haven’t matured much beyond “training” as an abstract and don’t give a hoot whether or not the audience is more skilled in a topic than the instructor, so we are stuck with conducting the training, but we aren’t stuck with HOW we present the training, or even at what level we present it. ,
    If we were to do an accurate needs assessment and we found that most of the audience already know a fair amount about a topic we could, for example, develop a course that used case studies and small groups so that the veteran-experts could teach the novices. Granted that means less ego stroking for the instructor, but a cautionary tale from a veteran means infinitely more than a lecture from an overly earnest safety professional who has never set foot in the field.
  • Contextual Learning. Most of us don’t work in the classroom, and most of the learners don’t work in the classroom. Add to that, the fact that the further training moves away from the environment in which the skills are actually used the less effective the training is and we have an epidemic of dangerously bad safety training. When you select the location of training, ask yourself this: “would I feel safe as a passenger on a plane if the full extent of the training the pilot received was delivered in an equivalent method and location?” If you answer is anything but a resounding “NO” than you are probably snacking on lead paint chips right now. The reality is that people learn by doing, and by doing in as close an approximation to the actual circumstances in which they will use the required skills.
  • Testing and Evaluation. Okay, nobody likes tests, and most of the tests I have read really and deeply suck. I don’t remember where I read it, but in general, the odds of answering a true or false question isn’t 50:50 rather it is 63:37 so in other words just by guessing one has a 63% chance of guessing a true or false question correctly. The odds get even better when the person writing the test isn’t particularly adept at writing test questions and use absolutes (must, always, never, etc.) into the question. Since all I need to do to prove a question containing absolutes as false is to come up with one case where the statement could be true the odds are pretty high that question that contains absolutes is false, it’s pretty easy to guess correctly. So why are true or false questions so prevalent? They are easy to write.
    Of course there are the multiple choice questions that are so easy to rule out the wrong answers that one can guess the correct answer through process of elimination. What’s worse are the questions so poorly written (both c and a but not d and sometimes b or “all of the above” or “none of the above”) that the question is more a test of reading comprehension than it is of any skills supposedly imparted by the training.
    But safety people don’t like tests, particularly well written tests. It’s about checking the box. We should be evaluating people in their work areas by having them demonstrate the skills required.

The problem is we don’t really care about the quality of the training we do, or perhaps it’s better stated that we don’t really care if the training we do makes a difference or not as long as we can prove we did it.

It’s too bad because if safety teamed with the training function we might just have a big safety breakthrough, but it’s unlikely. Companies spend millions on snake oil designed to “change the culture” but bulk at the $10,000 between creating an effective elearning and one that is well…pardon the expression eCrap.