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Table talk: training and technology

Representatives from leading UK consultancies discuss trends in OSH training, and how clients can make training more effective and avoid common mistakes choosing packages. 

Effective OSH training is critical, not least because it contributes to helping to ensure employees are competent, yet there remain many pitfalls at the delivery stage. We brought together three experienced representatives from OSH training providers to discuss present and future training challenges with IOSH Magazine’s deputy editor.

Nick Warburton (NW): How well do you think OSH training is working in the 21st century?

Steve Dalby (SD): All our training is done online. Where people request it, we offer classroom training and we do blended training. Most organisations offer computers and they understand what e-learning is, but they sometimes struggle to drive their users to it. Construction people tend to be in their late 30s and older. E-learning to them is a little new. However, they do understand the technology and we keep it as simple as possible. People feel comfortable in a classroom but there’s a market for both. There’s a slow acceptance of the technology that drives education.

Andrew Watson (AW): There’s a key word that doesn’t quite lend itself to blended or e-learning and that is competence. How do you assess people’s competence? Also, it doesn’t fit with some of the people who will sit qualifications. That said, I am a huge fan of it. If we could make it work and get that blended learning to be more acceptable, then I think there’s a future. It’s definitely been driven by customers. It doesn’t fit with everybody but for those it does, it’s an excellent way to take safety and health forward.

Paul Bizzell (PB): Some things lend themselves well to a book, an e-book, an online self-paced learning approach – the ability to self-pace on a computer is important because when you are teaching a class you work at the pace of the slowest and risk losing the bright ones. The other component that comes down to competence is about embedding it. Sometimes you’ve got to go to the next stage before you embed the learning or the training and it becomes learning.

SD: That’s where the competence comes in. That’s why the word changed from competence to capability, so the ability to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you are competent to do it. That’s where the knowledge and experience has to be added in. Training is one aspect of it. Continual professional development, that’s where the technology can come in – as a constant reminder of the way you’re supposed to do something, like lifting. That’s where the blended learning comes in. The classroom is valid; the computer is valid. But how you deliver that communicative message to ensure confidence and capability is key. Unfortunately, our experience in dealing with many training and safety officers is that they don’t necessarily understand the technology. They don’t understand how best to deliver those key messages. That’s where the biggest change needs to be.

“Many training and safety officers don’t necessarily understand the technology. They don’t understand how best to deliver those key messages.”

NW: It sounds like having motivated trainers is vital?

PB: That’s a really important ingredient. Do they want to impart learning or do they want to tick a box? If you have an organisation that genuinely wants to impart learning and give their staff an experience that is beneficial for them, rather than something they have to endure and pass a simple test at the end, then that has a huge impact on how well the technology is accepted.

AW: We do respiratory protection training. We were telling our joint venture partner that we would retrain people at 15-week intervals. They were quite shocked because they said [that with] some people the memory part goes within weeks and you have to refresh that … Just to give them a message electronically and remind them of the process would be a huge benefit.

SD: There are so many computer systems tracking things, like issuing safety helmets or respirators … “I know that I’ve just issued this, but suddenly I need to track it”. Why can’t they get a text message that says, “You’ve just received a respirator. This is a link to the training on how to use it”? Everybody has their phone with them. It’s about taking responsibility for training and not just [seeing it as] a number. The biggest issue is the cost and the integration of education as training. It doesn’t have a high enough priority.

PB: That raises an issue of access. Technically, there’s a computer in the mess room and they can log on. But have they the time to stand at the computer? With phones, another complaint is information overload. You should never underestimate the ingenuity of man to be able to immediately delete a message that’s coming from the safety department, whether that’s email or text.

SD: That’s the key, isn’t it? It’s not about training, it’s about a training programme, so you can deliver those communication messages in a way that is not an overload. You take a wider remit. You do training plans.

AW: We did a survey because we were investing money in developing a platform for e-learning. One problem was in proving that competence and proving who is actually answering questions if you do get to the point of questioning them. This comes back to how knowledgeable the individuals are and how and when do you cross-check that?

SD: The word “blended” comes into it again. I think it’s about trying to hit the right people at the right time. A customer had the same complaint. What they did was send their staff home at two o’clock on a Friday. They told them that over the weekend they needed to go online and do two hours of learning. The managers were able to confirm who logged on and what training they did. They delivered 25 hours of e-learning and that was a win-win for them. It motivates the user to do it. It’s not something that needs to be on their to-do list that they never quite get around to doing.

PB: That’s an important distinction between teaching and learning. I’ve always said there is only one thing anybody ever needs to be taught in their life and that’s how to learn. Take the media people use these days. The way people use Netflix and YouTube is by following a link. That’s almost like learning should be. If we’re talking about computer learning, make it stimulating.

NW: What about those who are more reticent about technology?

PB: The obvious answer to that is the Barclays Bank approach: mentoring and buddying. It is a barrier for some that are a certain age; they’re not going to be able to type. You’ve got another potential emotional barrier of people not wanting to be seen to be slow. But it’s better that they do it slowly at their own pace than be forced to sit in a class, miss a key learning point, and then the next 40 minutes is a waste.

SD: What we found was not to push the technology too far. People needed to sit in front of a screen, listen to a voice, watch some words, make a few notes and then do a test at the end. That was as much of the technology that they could deal with. By the time you get over the age of 40, the idea of gaming and game learning doesn’t work. It was too much for them. Whenever we try to do anything interactive, it really doesn’t get as good feedback. It’s about understanding the audience. It will be interesting in ten years’ time when workers in the field start to move into the office and they’re starting to lead and manage. I wonder what technology will need to be in place.

AW: If you can demonstrate and show the impact of getting things wrong, that’s where gaming could come in. You can sit in 360-degree cinemas and you can see things that you wouldn’t see in reality and how problems develop. We thought that would help plug a gap but the market voted with its feet. It did not work. The technology can be running quicker than the audiences.

PB: There is a bit of a market out there for game-based learning in safety and health, not necessarily using computers but board games. There isn’t a board game that’s been made that hasn’t been computerised, so that’s the logical next step. To do it at a physical level first and then computerise it. The other is story-boarding [asking], “Why do we need to do this? What’s in it for me? What’s in it for you?”

NW: Is one of the main hurdles communicating the value of training to finance directors?

PB: You have to explain to them the risk that you’re taking out of the business or the cost that you are taking out: one or the other. When you’re talking about the risks in safety and health, seldom is it “clear and present danger”. The only time that you get that, unfortunately, is after something’s gone horribly wrong. The finance director is key.

The businesses that have gone the furthest have got HR, senior management, including the finance people, line managers, and health and safety all pulling in the same direction. If you don’t have somebody right up at the top level, it’s not worth going down a significant change management process. Whether that’s innovating in learning or trying to shift the health and safety culture, you’ve got to look into the eyes of senior management and know they want it, otherwise you’re wasting your time, potentially their money and doing your reputation no good at all.

NW: How do you maximise the benefits of blended learning without having the trainees sitting in front of you?

SD: [It’s about] knowing the audience and the level. When we do management training, we take people back to their previous experience so they can put that in the context of what they have to do today. The other way is to review past accidents and issues, and concerns of what would have been done in hindsight. If, in my training, I can hit emotion, I can teach them a new lesson, and I can get it in context, then it’s the same as a classroom.

PB: A big issue for the construction industry is subcontracting. Many of the major construction companies assume that by placing the contract they are buying in competence. How do they assure themselves that the staff that they’ve contracted in are competent? There’s a huge online test of the competence they think they’ve bought in. Is it really there? There’s a market there to be developed.

SD: We tried to get people to register their competencies and confirm what they did. We tried to put a lot of those tools in. There are a lot of online tools on which people can register their competence but it’s difficult to define. How do you know someone is competent? I guess it has to be their track record.

PB: The issue I’m seeing in construction is that, although there are bodies that accredit and gift tickets, most fall into some level of disrepute. That means that the need for assurance is on the rise.

AW: We became the assessors. It’s about understanding how to do that properly; to have that level of quality assurance, that you do know that individual is competent. Is blended learning a way to encourage people to put the guided learning hours back to where they should be? There is a need for someone to spend that amount of time. It’s not just a tick in a box. This means something to the bottom line because your workforce is safer.

“The biggest mistake is that safety and health tends to be looked at in islands of time and in isolation as opposed to a culture or a programme of change.”

NW: It sounds like a lot of this is about risk management

SD: It is [but] the problem is with the way the markets are going, [it] being a financial penalty. A lot of liabilities are offset with an insurance policy. That’s all they need to see on the contract. We’re getting to a point where, with the past four or five years of cutting back on the workforce, clients want something that can be done efficiently and as quickly as possible. We’ll give them time to do that training but they’ve still got other work that needs to be done. That has to change.

PB: Training is about improvement. People’s health and safety management systems are focused on compliance. Yet all of the [management] standards talk about continual improvement. What we don’t see is the safety improvement process or sometimes the quality improvement process. Where is your process improvement? That’s where training and learning fit in.

NW: How can OSH practitioners ensure training is put into practice?

AW: I was brought up on standards-based training. The nationalised industry created the standards [which were replaced by] national occupational standards. Never mind the qualification side of that, it’s the standard achieved that is key. To make sure the quality assurance is there, instead of doing training of individuals, observe them in the workplace and find out where the focus is on the training. Instead of training 10,000 people, train the 200-300 that need the training and look at how you can make that effective. If that is blended learning and it works for these people, fantastic. It’s not about the qualification. I would always encourage people to get it but it’s the standard that is achieved that is important.

PB: Absolutely, and when we’re talking to organisations about safety culture, there’s a difference between wanting the certificate on the wall and wanting to be worthy of it.

SD: That’s why the culture is so important. If you could trust the culture in your organisation, we’d be out of a job because we know that the supervisor is going to make sure that his team knows how to use that particular equipment safely and I have some level of assurance. But we don’t trust these people, which is where you come back to the measurements and 100% knowing that they did it well and that they didn’t do it well. I don’t know whether education can change the culture. The culture needs to be changed in the organisation.

PB: Changes in behaviour is the trailing indicator. My first rule of management is, “If you’re having a meeting, something has to change as a result of it”. A training event is a meeting, even if it’s one man and a computer. The intent of training is to do something differently. That’s what you measure to know it’s been embedded. Have behaviours changed? Is the individual doing something they couldn’t do before? Are they doing it more efficiently than they were before? But you need to know before the training is set up what the desired outcome is. Then you need to measure before and after to know you’ve got the embedding.

SD: Over the past 20 years that mentality has changed. The whole governance of safety and health culture is different from what it was but there’s still a long way to go. People get promoted through the organisation. Unless you are making sure that culture gets fed in at the bottom and it goes through the management tree, it will disappear. Also, safety and health can change in an organisation because they changed the health and safety manager.

AW: That’s one of the big cultural changes I’ve seen. To me, there’s 35 years of an opportunity that’s been missed by leaving [the more senior workers] sitting stagnating there. If it is an easy way to get people into education by offering the blended learning route and [giving those senior workers] that ambition again, that’s got to tick boxes. A successful business is not just about safety and health, it’s a mixture of safety and health and production. If you can do that internally with a workforce you’ve already got, then fantastic.

SD: Doesn’t that come back to the board level, the way they implement this and the culture they want to implement? Is there a disconnect between the people who have the responsibility of ensuring I have a good health and safety culture versus the finance director who has to pay for it, the health and safety manager or director who has to implement it? How do you change that? That’s where most of the roadblocks are in the organisation, where it’s a lower priority. It’s good between the middle management. But, by the time you get to the top, it’s more about the money, the cost and managing the risks.

“By the time you get over the age of 40, the idea of gaming and game learning doesn’t work … It’s about understanding the audience.”

NW: Clients can make mistakes when choosing trainers/training. What do you see as the most common?

SD: The obvious is, “I need to meet the need now and then I can forget about it. I am going to get everyone through the training course and we’ve ticked the box”. It’s obvious that they are trying to meet their manager’s request to get this done. Doing it in little islands is part of the biggest issue and I find it so easy to build from. If there are two people working together and one picks up the drill to put a hole in the wall and they do it incorrectly and dangerously, 99% of the time the person next to them that knows the correct rule will tell them because they don’t want to get them hurt. But that simple relationship tends not to be built upon the way it could do. The biggest mistake is that safety and health tends to be looked at in islands of time and isolation as opposed to a culture or a programme of change.

PB: It’s the disconnect between the people planning the training and the people who need the trainees to do their job. You need some contingency because things happen. Somebody’s kids are [always] going to be off sick and they won’t be able to attend; you can’t just switch people. The other common one is, on paper, it looks like people can attend because they can be released but their back-up is on holiday and they can’t leave the job because the process stops if they have two people off. The answer to the question is “silos”. Added to that is “timeliness”. How much training is reactive rather than proactive?

AW: One of the big disconnects is the way training is funded in the UK [although] we’ve made a big step to go in the right direction. The training cost is not the biggest cost to your business, it’s the time you’ve released the guy for, so is it worth investing to get the training at the right level? If you look into the new trailblazer apprenticeships, and I think there is a warning coming out about it, don’t go to these companies that are saying they can solve your problems [that] you can create something that will use your levy because using your levy is not the key driver. Training that makes a difference is the driver, so take funding out of the process and let people decide, “Is this value for money? Will I get something at the end of this?”