A way to evaluate safety training that uncovers ‘intervening factors’

by on August 14, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

You conduct an in-depth series of training sessions. Did they work?

To answer that, you can point to feedback sheets to determine whether or not workers found the training useful. You can use testing to verify they understood the material. And you can observe they’ve changed their behavior on the job.

But when it comes to the final issue of results – did this new safety initiative reduce accidents? – there’s always the issue of other factors affecting safety.

What gets in the way
We don’t mean engineering controls and process-safety management, but things you still have under your control – if you only knew about them. Examples:

  • a supervisor failing to follow up on the training
  • production pressures washing away the “good intentions” of the training, and
  • inadequate procedures where workers feel that the job really can’t be done safely.

Leading training expert Robert Brinkerhoff is one of the best known at documenting this phenomenon in a variety of workplace settings.

And he says that your safety training evaluation method offers a great opportunity to uncover these other intervening factors – the real-world things done and said on the worksite that undermine your safety training. Here’s what he suggests you do:

Ask the right question
There’s a trap when evaluating the effectiveness of safety training. It comes from phrasing an evaluation question like this: How did the safety training impact safety results? It seems like a reasonable question, but “intervening variables” can easily skew the final results.

Brinkerhoff recommends a slight, but important, adjustment: How did we use safety training to improve safety results? It’s an important distinction – it automatically redirects the question toward the field application of safety training and starts to uncover the real-world factors that also impact safety.

For example, one shipbuilder we know had a problem with anchor points: There was a shortage of them. If he had asked “How did the fall-protection training impact safety results?” it would point to greater compliance with worker’s behavior – in this case, tying off.

But the safety director asked the second question – “How are we using safety training to improve results?”

The answer there: One enterprising supervisor conducted follow-up discussions on the training. He uncovered complaints from workers that the training was unrealistic because of a lack of anchor points that fit what was taught in the training.

The supervisor, from then on, insisted on workers’ coming to him when they questioned whether an anchor point was good enough. And the safety director, getting that feedback, knew he had to adjust the anchor-point training module to make it realistic.

Survey workers a week later
Brinkerhoff recommends seeking out success stories – from both workers and supervisors. Survey workers a week or two after training and ask, “How did you apply the training in a way that improved the safety of the workplace?”

Example: One construction crew that underwent near-miss training began to notice that their worksite often contained trip hazards. People were placing buckets in walkways and allowing debris to excessively pile up.

They came up with a list of items moved out of the way and fewer “near misses” and trips. The safety director, in this case, interviewed members of the crew, and noted that the supervisor in this case paid greater attention to housekeeping after the training session than he had previously.

Bottom line: Supervisory support mattered; the crew followed his lead.

Talk to the non-responsive
Brinkerhoff recommends one last step: Talk to a sample of crews or supervisors who didn’t respond to the survey.

Example: One foreman we know said, “We simply don’t do certain procedures when the safety director is around.”

Asked why, he responded that the procedures and equipment they had were inadequate to do the job with a low risk. But the crew felt that they were skilled enough to “pull off” the job without injury or damage.

Uncovered intervening factors: Luck and skill.

Bottom line: Safety training wasn’t being used here.

The organization now knew that it would undermine its training authority until it addressed the other performance factors impacting safety – in this case, better procedures and equipment.

Source: Brinkerhoff, Robert, et al., “The Success Case Method,” Advances in Developing Human Resources, February, 2005.

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