Ineffective health and safety learning in the manufacturing industry can incur a huge negative cost to workers, productivity and the bottom line. The costs are not solely financial; affected individuals and their families risk a reduction in quality of life. Despite widely provided manual handling training, HSE statistics estimate 8.9mn days in the UK in 2019/20 were lost to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
Clearly training isn’t enough. In fact, it’s only one element of a good learning system, which should follow a clear cycle of preparation, delivery, transfer and measurement.
However, a first-class workplace learning programme isn’t developed overnight. An effective system which cultivates competence needs to track what each employee (or group of employees) requires, what training they have received and how their ability to perform tasks safely has been assessed. The overall aim is for them to be able to do their jobs in a way that harms neither them, nor those around them.
Taken at face value, it seems a byzantine undertaking, but investing in the right technology can help deliver an efficient, streamlined process.
Here, I will take the opportunity to explore how technology can support and strengthen the elements of a high-quality learning programme, enhancing the experience for all.
Prepare employees with detailed training and digitise critical information
Start by following the hierarchy of hazard controls, in which training and processes come after elimination, substitution and engineering controls. Leaders too often generalise training needs, for example by deciding all staff should have the same manual handling course, when different courses or solutions might be more appropriate. Perhaps employees need to lift big boxes of paper onto high shelves. You could train them how to do so safely or you could substitute the big boxes for smaller ones which go on lower shelves, or even eliminate the boxes entirely by only storing files digitally. All three options can help reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries, but to very different degrees.
Next, good information management can help overcome communication challenges, while increasing efficiency on essential activities. For example, if employees are struggling to remember the exact steps to take for an activity, consider a resources-first approach. Digitising critical information for workers with an emphasis on user experience and intuitiveness can give employees at facility, and working remotely, access to the resources they need to perform to their best.
Once workplace organisation has been optimised, outstanding health and safety training needs can be identified through risk assessments, which highlight competency requirements to inform performance objectives.
Deliver learning in a variety of ways, such as on-the job, classroom and e-learning
Delivering learning is not as straightforward as booking people onto a training course. It’s about planning employees’ learning paths, blending face-to-face and remote methods of learning, instruction and practice. Newer methods of learning meld the best of several approaches, including on-the job and classroom learning as well as e-learning, while overcoming the downsides.
E-learning can incorporate audio and video elements, case studies and assessment tools without being limited by geography or time. Virtual classrooms share the same benefits, but with the advantages of a facilitator being available to check understanding and field questions, as well as real-time interactions with peers. Remote solutions, such as virtual reality, are also an excellent option for emergency training or practicing higher-risk tasks.
Importantly, an in-person or face-to-face element should be included after an e-learning course to provide an opportunity to discuss, ask questions or raise any concerns.
Provide opportunities for workers to apply what they’ve learned
Training is a waste of time and money if employees can’t apply the training to do their job effectively and safely. If you want people to change, it will take more than them achieving full marks on a test.
To embed learning, people need timely opportunities to apply and practice what they’ve learned in context. Don’t assume this will happen automatically. Organisations need to make sure they have the right equipment, adequate time, budget and personal support to apply their learning. For example, you can’t train workers to lift correctly in an environment that prevents good postures while handling.
The role of tech here is to make it easier and quicker to apply new skills, where appropriate. For example, apps make it possible to carry out a dynamic risk assessment in a few clicks, online systems can link asbestos registers to locations within job sheets and chemical databases can make hazardous substance assessments more accurate and efficient.
Measure manufacturing skills and learning
Methods for assessing training effectiveness vary from short term and superficial, such as attendance and student feedback, to longer term and meaningful, such as incident, accident and ill-health records.
A good learning management system (LMS) helps address the most commonly used methods by recording completion of modules against employees’ names. Good version management with e-learning courses facilitates better records of what was on courses at the time they were taken. A comprehensive system will also allow leaders to schedule feedback surveys at fixed intervals after course completion, which gives workers time to reflect on and apply their learning.
The ultimate test of the effectiveness of your health and safety training programme must be whether it protects people from harm. While some hazards have measurable results, many types of incidents happen very rarely. Auditing leading indicators of risks, such as fire, and regular health surveillance to monitor health conditions are a good start. High-quality incident reporting, observation and auditing software can help capture relevant data, report hazards and near-misses to illustrate trends over time. These measures allow you to review what’s working, or not, so you can start the preparation process again with data-driven improvement decisions.
It might seem like a mammoth task, but it’s one well worth undertaking. By following the cycle outlined above, and taking each part of the development journey one step at a time you can create a learning programme which delivers real value, helping to improve the safety and wellbeing of your people, meaning you do better business.
Aisling Miller, Head of Product – Training & Learning at EcoOnline, is a leading provider of Environmental, Health, Safety and Quality (EHSQ) software. Aisling has a PhD in Environmental Microbiology, and spent years working in science education and communication before moving into software product management.