Workplace safety training: dos, don’ts and what’s next

August 9, 2023

Workers observing safety protocols.
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The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently announced a new national emphasis program to improve workplace safety in warehouses, processing facilities, distribution centers and high-risk retail establishments. As part of the program, OSHA plans to conduct more health and safety inspections of such facilities over the next three years to address potential risk factors. Among the best ways for any facility to prepare for an inspection is redoubling their efforts to train employees on workplace safety.

The benefits of this proactive approach are twofold: Workplace safety training helps employees develop the knowledge and skills needed to work safely and demonstrates employers’ good-faith efforts to protect employees and improve working conditions. Employers generally know they should be conducting safety training, but many struggle with what to teach employees and how to deliver effective and actionable programs. Here, we will highlight some resources and best practices to help you optimize your safety training initiatives.

Don’t reinvent the wheel: leveraging national standards

According to the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), the most effective training incorporates adult learning principles, multiple modes of learning and hands-on exercises. Building a training program that hits all those notes might sound daunting, but the good news is that employers need not start from scratch. Together with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), ASSP has created criteria and accepted practices for safety, health and environmental training that employers can leverage regarding development, delivery, evaluation and program management. This standard is known as ANSI/ASSP Z490.1.

In recognition of employee populations becoming more dispersed and the rising popularity of virtual training, ANSI and ASSP released Z490.2 in 2019 to provide specific guidance on accepted practices for e-learning in occupational safety, health and environmental training. Applying the ADDIE instructional design model — analyze, design, develop, implement, evaluate — this supplementary standard (when used with predecessor Z490.1) helps employers manage and deliver virtual safety training effectively, as well as measure outcomes and on-the-job application of its lessons. Shortly after Z490.2 was published, the COVID pandemic hit and related workplace health and safety issues quickly took priority. Many may not be familiar with this valuable resource because its release was overshadowed by the pandemic, so we wanted to highlight it here for awareness.

Use of the ANSI/ASSP standards has been shown to support organizations’ compliance with OSHA’s general duty clause and OSHA regulations that specifically require training. Employers that are unsure where to start in building or enhancing their workplace safety training programs will be well served to turn to these standards for quality guidance.

Consider your audience: applying adult education principles

Another worthwhile resource is OSHA’s publication on developing and delivering employee training. Among other features, the guide highlights the importance of tailoring employee safety training to adult learners in order to achieve the best results. Here are a few of the adult education principles they reference:

  • Voluntary learning: Adults generally learn best when they have decided they need to learn. Workplace safety training may be mandatory, but it can also be positioned as a valuable opportunity for professionals seeking to grow, improve their performance, and protect themselves and others at work.
  • Immediacy of impact: Adults have a right to know why information is (or should be) important to them. Programs should quickly demonstrate how the training material and methods are relevant to employees’ lives.
  • Respect: Adults have a wealth of personal and professional experience and knowledge that should be acknowledged. They will resent an instructor or training content that talks down to them or dismisses their concerns.
  • Learning by doing: Adults learn more when are actively engaged and participate in the process. They will retain more information when they use and practice their knowledge and skills as part of the training.

Virtual reality: the new frontier in safety training?

Taking the concept of e-learning to the next level is training via virtual reality (VR), which immerses users into a computer-generated instructive environment via a head-mounted display or other technologies. Like nearly all tech-forward innovations, VR safety training has its pros and cons.

On the positive side:

  • VR enables employees to engage in real-time decision making as they’re learning, as well as to safely make mistakes away from the live hazards of the workplace.
  • Research cited by the National Safety Council (NSC) found VR safety training to be more effective than traditional approaches and to offer improved knowledge retention and recall.
  • Immersive learning can be a happy medium between in-person/on-the-job training and online training delivered via a computer or mobile device.
  • VR is gaining general popularity, especially among avid video game players. Younger members of the workforce may find VR training feels natural and especially engaging.

It also has its drawbacks:

  • VR is not always the best medium for teaching skills involving complex systems or processes requiring hand dexterity.
  • It may not integrate well with the back end of learning management systems and security platforms.
  • Equipment and software costs are high, so scalability can be an issue for large or decentralized employee populations.
  • Some VR users experience may nausea, headaches or mental fatigue.
  • Many organizations don’t understand the technology or how it can benefit their employees and are therefore hesitant to invest in it or to use it for a purpose as important as safety training.

Incorporating VR in safety training is a rapidly evolving trend, and we advise that its use be researched thoroughly and mapped out wisely based on your particular safety considerations and employee population to ensure the greatest return on investment. No matter the mechanism or content used for safety training at your organization, the most important thing to remember is that the ultimate goal is to keep people safe and healthy at work.

Learn more — read about Sedgwick’s risk services offerings and how we can help you improve the safety of your workplace