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May 8, 2013

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SHE 2013 – Arco Academy – All aboard

It’s all very well trying to impart knowledge and skills in your health and safety training sessions but if you don’t focus equally heavily on the third element in the learning experience — attitude — your sessions will sink like a stone. Matt Cleve outlines what needs to be done to engage even the most jaded employees.

Have you heard the one about the optional health and safety course they ran at work the other day? Apparently, people weren’t falling over themselves to get in. . . 

OK, a pretty poor gag, I admit, but do you know what’s worse? Mandatory health and safety training! Let’s face it, when was the last time your staff whooped with glee when that particular e-mail dropped into their inbox?

The truth is that most people find health and safety training eternally dull. The thought of eight hours of it in an anonymous, airless hotel function room fills you with the kind of dread you feel when you find out that you’ve been seated next to the resident caravan enthusiast at the office Christmas party and you know — you just know — they’re going to spend the whole meal telling you about the new convex towing mirrors they’ve had fitted, and how they use airflow to increase stability up to a maximum tested speed of 155mph. . .

You see, teh thnig wiht teh hmuan biran is taht it deonst lkie to be boerd. It lekis to be enggaed and atcvie, eevn if ist owenr thniks it wntas to jsut sit tehre and draem abuot the ftooabll throguh eihgt hruos of trinainig. If yuo do smeothnig inretseting msot poelpe can’t rseist it beuscse, deep dwon, tehy wnat to be inlovved, tehy wnat to tkae part. (See what we did there?!)

It’s about making people think differently and reassess their jaded view of health and safety, and that’s where traditional training frequently fails. At least, that’s what participants often report. They say health and safety training is just a ‘tick in a box’, that it’s just the ‘same-old, same-old’ and that it’s always ‘death by a hundred PowerPoint slides’. All too often, unfortunately, they are right.

So, how do you get people to buy in, to say ‘yes’? How do you get the most hard-nosed, battle-weary, safety sceptic to say “Yes! That was the best training I’ve had in 30 years working for this company! Yes, health and safety is important! Yes, I want to positively contribute to creating a world-class health and safety culture!” Or, at least, how do you get them to say words to that effect?

Three little words
Well, the first thing you should consider is the angle from which you are approaching the subject. Let’s take a simple concept: Knowledge — Skills — Attitude. Every one of your employees needs these three things in abundance if they are to complete any safety-critical task in a safe manner.

Think about it: take any one of these away and you rely on a fourth and somewhat fickle element — luck! Yet many organisations only ever focus on the first two: knowledge and skills. Of course, you most certainly should focus on these — you have to. If you send somebody off to operate a dangerous piece of equipment without them having the requisite knowledge and skills, you’ll soon be having a visit from the HSE when things go pear-shaped quicker than a quick thing in a hurry.

Any responsible employer will, as a matter of course, give their people the right knowledge and skills. But even responsible employers often forget to focus on people’s attitudes, which is a serious mistake, as it is our attitude that drives our behaviours and ultimately defines whether or not we choose to use the knowledge and skills we have gained through our training in order to carry out a task safely.

It is also in this realm of attitudes and behaviours that health and safety becomes interesting for your average ’30 years served, been there, seen it all, bought the grease-stained T-shirt’ employee, because it is through this type of training that participants are forced to think differently, to take stock of their own working practices, and to really challenge their own mind-set. They’ve done all of the other stuff before — the legislation, the fire-extinguisher colour-code recognition, the manual handling. All important things, but they don’t really get the juices flowing, do they?

So, what does? Well, engaging people emotionally works pretty well. And I don’t mean just trying to make people cry by showing them a pile of photos of dead kittens, or injured factory workers. I mean getting them to laugh and have fun. Helping them to enjoy the training experience rather than it feeling like three hours of their lives that they’ll never get back. The point here is that if it doesn’t engage them, they won’t remember it; if they don’t remember it, then the intervention has been a waste of time and resource — and your finance director will not be happy!

You certainly don’t engage people by just bombarding them with facts and information; that becomes an entirely passive process for the delegate. In fact, a delegate is something that you don’t want in health and safety training; you really want a participant — someone who is actively involved, who is allowing themselves to become willingly immersed in the experience.

Hooray for Hollywood
But why is this important? Think about movies. A good film takes you on a journey. It grabs you and doesn’t let go from the first frame to the last. It makes you think. It makes you feel. It transports you to a new reality. Unless you’re a documentary junkie, your favourite film is probably not one that presents you simply with facts. That would be, like some health and safety training, just dull.

Take ‘Pearl Harbour’. You know — Ben Affleck, palm trees, exploding ships, etc. Now, the producers could have made a movie that simply showed how the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, ‘a date which will live in infamy’. That would have resulted in a historical documentary and very few bums on seats. Instead, they decided to make it more interesting by adding a love triangle involving two childhood friends, a pretty young girl and a big old war. This was designed to engage the audience emotionally and draw it in so that
. . . OK, OK it was a terrible movie, so — bad example, but you get what I’m saying: just giving people information won’t engage them and, if they’re not engaged, they won’t retain the information.

Where many organisations fail culturally is in making health and safety something that is done to their people rather than making it something that their people are part of. The former results in them becoming disenfranchised, the latter creates a powerful incubator for continuous improvement. Unless you include people in what you are doing, they will never climb on board. That process of inclusion has to start in the training room.

Of course, there are many well-known techniques you can use to engage and include people — discussions, activities, crisis simulation, film or live theatre, competitive tasks, problem solving — the list goes on and none of it is new. The trouble is that all of these techniques can be executed poorly. The best activity ever devised can fall as flat as a fox on a freeway if the person delivering it is, well, rubbish. Whoever is delivering your training — be they a health and safety manager, an in-house trainer, or a consultant — they have to be able to connect with and draw in their audience. Fall at this fence and even the best-laid workshop plan will fail to take you over the line.

One final thing to remember: your people will never come on a journey with you if you don’t treat them with absolute respect. It is, after all, the company that needs their help rather than the other way round. Their help in reducing accidents; their help in creating a safer working environment; their help in eliminating hazards and minimising risk. The reality is that you can never force people to be engaged in a training programme, just as you can never force them to contribute positively to the health and safety culture. This isn’t about getting people to do things because they have to, with resentment and through gritted teeth; it’s about getting people to do things because they want to. And that includes wanting to go to mandatory health and safety training.

Now that day would live in infamy! 

Matt Cleve is learning and development director at Juice Learning Ltd and will be presenting on this topic in the Arco Academy at Safety & Health Expo at 11am on 15 and 16 May.

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