Putting Safety Training Online

Coursework should go beyond ‘check the box.’

By Dave Zielinski Jan 1, 2013
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0113cover.gifErike Young faced a tall task when seeking to deliver mandated safety training to 50,000 employees on 10 different campuses across the University of California system. Young, the system’s director of environment, health and safety, had a logistics challenge in ensuring that users could access a laboratory safety training course in a timely, cost-effective way. He had to satisfy a tough audience, too.

Some of the trainees would be professors with doctorates and Nobel Prizes—an audience that could likely teach the course itself and that had little time for training amid research and teaching demands. So when Young opted for a web-based training delivery format, he knew from interviewing a committee of administrative and academic leaders that the e-learning had to be instructionally sound, engaging and effective. After all, this was a culture that still championed instructor-led education as the preferred teaching method.

“The message from the committee was, ‘Don’t just tell us to take the training because it’s required by regulation,’ ” says Young, who is based in Oakland. “If our employees had to take mandatory training, they really wanted them to learn something from it, not just have it be a ‘check-the-box’ exercise.”

Working with vendor Vivid Learning Systems of Pasco, Wash., Young developed a custom two-hour online lab safety fundamentals course that addresses key regulations from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The course has interactive exercises and feedback elements to keep participants engaged and a pre-training assessment that lets employees test out of content they can show they’ve already mastered. To stress the importance of the training, a short video from university president Mark Yudof kicks off the course.

The university invested about $100,000 in course development, but it expects to achieve delivery cost savings over time using online instead of instructor-led training methods.

"We didn’t just want to deliver PowerPoint slides with voice-overs that satisfied certain regulations but made people tune out. It was essential that our employees’ first experience with online safety training be positive,” Young says.

More Flexibility

While trainers moved quickly in the past to migrate other training subjects to online delivery, safety training has been slower to join the e-learning party. That’s due in part to OSHA, the U.S. Department of Transportation and other regulatory bodies for workplace hazard training, which require a “hands-on” learning component and ample opportunity for feedback during training.

Improvements in instructional design and growth of Internet bandwidth, however, have enabled developers to build more interactivity, gaming techniques and feedback mechanisms into online safety training, be it authored in-house or purchased off the shelf from training vendors. Delivering safety training through e-learning appeals to HR and training leaders on a number of fronts:

  • It ensures that all employees receive the same training in the same way.
  • It can be accessed around the clock by employees working from remote locations.
  • It provides more-efficient reporting upon completion of training classes than instructor-led options. Those records are essential to meet regulatory requirements. In other cases, proof of safety training completion is needed to grant workers access to certain areas of work environments.

“More companies are turning to blended, flexible or mobile versions of safety training,” says Tess Taylor, PHR, who writes about workplace safety training issues for the blog HR Writer. “That’s partly because more employees are working remotely or in flex arrangements, but also because it can be more cost-effective from a delivery standpoint to conduct training that way.”

Find the Right Tool

When Jack Hawkins, director of risk control, started working at the Coca-Cola Bottling Cos. in Charlotte, N.C., safety training was conducted through instructor-led courses and CD-based video learning. While those offline formats met regulatory objectives, they fell short of other training goals. “We often start the day at 5 a.m., and—for younger employees especially—having to come in and sit in the classroom at that hour for safety training wasn’t conducive to motivation,” Hawkins says.

The company has since migrated to e-learning for safety education. Employees can get online instruction from remote locations or from dedicated computer stations at 50 product distribution centers in nine states. Content is accessed by employees via a software-as-a-service model from vendor UL Pure Safety in Franklin, Tenn., an option Hawkins chose for its user-friendliness and instructionally sound content.

“We didn’t want our people to have to be computer scientists to log onto the site, find their safety lessons and take the training,” Hawkins says.

Most of the company’s safety training is conducted around driver safety and workplace injury and accident prevention to comply with requirements from the U.S. Department of Transportation and OSHA. Hawkins says the learning management system supporting the online training has been a benefit in tracking compliance.

With a new ability to monitor companywide training completion percentages, Hawkins could see early in training implementation that at the end of a given month, only 60 percent of employees had completed assigned safety lessons.

To boost that rate, Hawkins began publicizing training completion “scorecards” by location and department. Within months, spurred by the scorecards and supervisors’ encouragement, employees had achieved 80 percent compliance. Now, “We are close to 100 percent compliance for the 65,000 safety lessons our employee population takes over the course of a year,” Hawkins says. Coca-Cola Bottling structures the training in a way that keeps workplace safety issues top of mind for employees. “We don’t want people to be able to simply log onto the site in January and take their 12 safety lessons and be done,” Hawkins says. “The system allows us to assign one or two lessons a month across the whole organization, so people can’t work ahead.”

Keeping e-learning engaging for employees is vital, Hawkins says. Most training sessions are kept to 20 to 30 minutes, including testing time, and each has some form of interactive exercise to hold learners’ attention.

E-learning has had a positive impact on workplace safety performance, Hawkins says. According to a company-developed “risk dashboard” that details injury and vehicle accident rates for all operating units, Coca-Cola Bottling has had fewer injuries and vehicle accidents each year for the past five years, he says.

“We’ve reduced the overall frequency of vehicle injuries and accidents about 50 percent in that time, and, as a result, the cost of those losses is down 50 percent on an annualized basis,” Hawkins says.

Considerations

While cost and content standardization factors weigh heavily in decisions to deploy online safety training, HR and training leaders usually also want assurances that the safety messages they’ve approved are delivered uniformly to all employees and can be updated and delivered across dispersed audiences. E-learning can satisfy all these demands.

Marc VanderWal, director of global environment, health and safety for Graham Packaging Co. in York, Pa., was looking for a system that had content that would stay current with shifting industry regulations, have an engaging instructional design and be available in multiple languages. In evaluating potential vendors, he wanted a competitive price, too.

VanderWal chose safety training content from Dupont Sustainable Solutions in Virginia Beach, Va., to deliver to 6,500 employees working in 14 countries. Graham pays “$20 to $25 per employee per year” for access to 10 safety training courses.

In the past, Graham’s plants purchased or developed safety training courses on their own. But the process was inconsistent, VanderWal says, and HR managers in some plants were using content that didn’t comply with regulatory standards. That issue was resolved by centralizing delivery under Graham University, the organization’s education arm. Under that structure, the vendor’s learning management system tracks training completion rates, sends out e-mail reminders when refresher training is needed and handles other administrative tasks. Previously, HR managers in each plant tracked and reported on training, typically using Excel spreadsheets.

Graham’s operating plants do retain some autonomy, however. They’re given the choice of delivering training via the Web, DVD-based formats or instructor-led options. “Having different delivery methods gives plant leaders some options in customizing learning in ways they think work best for their distinct work cultures,” VanderWal says.

At Key Technology, a maker of process automated systems in Walla Walla, Wash., using e-learning for safety education has proved to be a good fit for 20 field engineers throughout the United States, says John Kadinger, a market manager who oversees staff training.

“The engineers work remotely, so they can log on and complete training from home offices,” Kadinger says. “It’s more cost-effective and convenient than flying them into headquarters for training or hiring outside instructors to teach courses at regional locations.”

High Standards


Even though cost and ease of access are factors in choosing an online safety program, some safety leaders say the biggest issue to consider is how training affects employees’ behavior on the job. “You can do things very cheaply, but if it’s not going to affect behavior, you will pay for it in other ways,” says the University of California’s Young.

Another key criterion in evaluating off-the-shelf courseware is ensuring that training is kept current with ever-changing OSHA or other industry regulations. VanderWal says that was a top priority for his organization. “If there is any liability regarding gaps in our safety training, we know our vendor is constantly surfing regulations to make sure the content is updated,” he says. “That is a big value-add for us.”

Given the serious, often life-and-death nature of safety lapses in the workplace, the stakes are becoming even higher for HR and training leaders to deliver online training that meets the highest standards for instructional quality.

The author is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis.

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