Kevin Ian Schmidt

Safety Training Is About Behavior Change

I remember only too well my first visit to a warehouse for a job interview. The bustle of the forklift traffic was considerable. Drivers were busily unloading and loading pallets of product into the long lines of waiting semi-tractor trucks. Numerous other employees were pulling and pushing hand trucks full of boxed product. This was one busy place. The natural question for me to ask as we continued our tour was, “Are your forklift operators trained?” I received the answer I was hoping for. “Oh yes of course!” My host continued to tell me, “We do it in-house and developed our own program and can’t drive the equipment here until they pass the test!”

On the surface, this looked and sounded wonderful. The company had recognized the considerable hazard untrained operators could create and had diligently attended to the hazard through a commonly accepted “administrative control” of a recognized hazard: operator training. As we proceeded from the loading dock into the storage area of the warehouse where three-story material racks were filled with palletized product, I was horrified to see that the base legs on nearly every one of the storage racks had been bent. The damage was seriously compromising the safety of the storage rack structure.

What this employer had failed to do was validate the behavior that they had hoped to accomplish with the forklift operator training. This is a common shortcoming of occupational health and safety related training. We set out the learning objectives and develop and deliver our safety courses.

On occasion, we even test the participants. Then many of us go on to the next safety issue if since our workers passed the knowledge test and demonstrated a level of competency at the time of the test that we’re now duly diligent and that they will forever more perform the tasks perfectly.

Really? By now we should all recognize that safe behaviors must be observed and re-enforced through positive feedback and, when necessary, the safe behavior coached.

How to make training “sticky”

For safety training to be “sticky” and result in safe behavior, we must take the often-overlooked step in training, which is validation. Case in point, Most Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) programs I’ve seen are great at imparting the basic information regarding chemical hazards and most are diligent enough to ensure that all our workers can pass a written or verbal test of the many symbols and terms used on labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDS). We fall short of the mark, however, by not actually observing them working safely with chemicals. This is, of course, the behavior we desire, isn’t it? Ask yourself: When do these workers receive their WHMIS cards announcing to any future employer and us that they are WHMIS trained? Usually they get that card after they have passed a test of the symbol knowledge. This is hardly enough to certify that they can work safely with chemical products.

Check Out: Making Behavior Change Stick Through Effective Change Leadership

Training and the safe behavior model

The behavior change model of training requires the following steps to be completed:

Establish the desired behaviors. Write a performance-based behavioral learning objective that describes the desired behavior; under what conditions the behavior will be demonstrated and finally, the standard that must be achieved to be considered successfully competent. For example:

“At the end of a six-hour in-class training session the student will be able to perform the following behaviors at the student’s regularly assigned workstation:

1) Transfer liquid chemicals without over exposure to the chemical;

2) Read and explain the contents of four randomly selected SDS’c including:

  1. a) What the entry routes are for the chemical;
  2. b) What personal protective equipment (PPE) to wear;
  3. c) Show knowledge of where the PPE is located;
  4. d) Wear the prescribed PPE properly…

I think you get the idea… We need to describe under what conditions the employee will be demonstrating the behavior or competency.

Finally, we must demand that the student demonstrate the new behavior to a determined level of competency. Once a student has demonstrated their ability to meet the criteria, we must then continue to support the new behavior with consistent observation and feedback.

Mager’s theory of behavioral objectives

There are many theories and approaches to writing learning objectives, however I find the Robert F. Mager model the easiest to teach. I recommend that you read his book, “Preparing Instructional Objectives: A Critical Tool in the Development of Effective Instruction”.

Once the training needs are analyzed and the learning goals of the program are determined by establishing the desired future behavior, follow the steps of Mager’s approach.

Learning goals need to be broken into a subset of smaller tasks or learning objectives. By definition, a behavioral objective must have three components: behavior, condition and standard.

To learn more about Mager’s theory of behavioral objectives, check out this post at Convergence Training.

Validation is due diligence

Here’s where the proverbial rubber hits the road. Is the trained employee behaving to the trained standard? How would you know? By testing at the end of the course? Certainly, that would be an indication that the employee could do the behavior. The due diligence question that the courts will want to know is “Were they exhibiting the safe behavior and how did you know?”

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