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February 3, 2015

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Getting more from your health and safety training

By Ian Pemberton

Do you wish you could get more on-the-job implementation of skills from your health and safety training?

You spend a lot of time and resources developing and delivering health and safety training. If trainees don’t put into practice on-the-job what they have been taught then what is the point of all this effort?

In my 25 years of experience of working as an ergonomist helping employers to design and deliver health and safety training, every safety specialist that I’ve ever met is always seeking ways of getting more on-the-job implementation of required skills. This wish is universal – it’s just a matter of degree. Some say that they’ve achieved success but want more. More commonly, they say that there is still a long way to go.

When I ask if employees are willing participants in health and safety training I often get an ironic laugh. Look, let’s be honest, the general perception of health and safety training is that it’s boring; where trainees respond with apathy or even hostility; and line managers are often not involved and not supportive.

Do we seriously believe that the existing format of most health and safety training is actually delivering improved on-the-job performance?

I propose that this widespread rejection of health and safety training by the very people we are trying to help is caused by a number of fundamental design flaws in our approach. These design flaws virtually guarantee that there will be little or no implementation on-the-job of skills taught – our basic approach is often doomed to failure before we even start. These design flaws not only explain the apathy or hostility of line managers and trainees – it explains why their reaction is actually completely rational.

If we are to transform health training into a key driver of job-skills competency we need new evidence-based approaches.

Do we need to abolish health and safety training if we want to make it relevant and practical?

I realise the above question may sound pretty outrageous but the situation is this – to overcome the design flaws I have referred to leads to one logical conclusion – to fix them I believe we need to abolish, if not all, then a fair bit of health and safety training as it is typically configured and replace it with something very different.

Take look at this diagram:

Pemberton pic

Your ultimate goal is to develop competent employees, competence being a mix of suitable knowledge, skills and experience – the competence triangle as shown above. Knowledge (AKA awareness raising, education, e-Learning) is the theory – the know-how. Skill (AKA training, coaching) is the practical bit – the hands-on application of the know-how. Knowledge and skills are joined at the hip – you can’t do until you know how. Hence you need both. But, it is important not to confuse them. Just because you know how, does not mean you can do, indeed these elements involve very different learning strategies.

In my experience the knowledge and skills elements of the competence triangle in the health and safety world are routinely confused. A lot of what passes as ‘health and safety training’ is in fact exclusively health and safety education or awareness raising – courses that go no further than presenting theoretical know-how. For example, any course taken on an e-Learning system, now an extremely popular tool, is often the sole means of providing ‘training’ but is in fact education not training.

This is not a criticism of e-Learning – it’s a very powerful tool which is often an essential part of a learning system. But, it is important to understand that completing an e-Learning course is just one part of the system – it’s only the first step towards developing and implementing a skilled behaviour on-the-job.

Experience includes a measure of how many times and in what range of situations you have applied your skills and knowledge.

Apart from this confusion – where education is assumed to be all that’s required – the main problem is that the skills element of this learning triangle usually has little chance of changing behaviour in the workplace – let’s take at look at why.

The content of skill-based training is often defective

A key finding of adult learning research is that employees who believe that their education or training will be useful to them in their job or career are far more likely to be motivated to learn and, crucially, apply what they have learnt in the workplace. (e.g. Clarke et al.1993, Axtell et al. 1997). In other words – ‘is this stuff going to be any use to me when I get back to work?’. This focus by adults on the practical usefulness during learning is a central andragogy principle – the art and science of teaching adults to learn.

However, in my experience, in health and safety training sessions too much time is taken up by knowledge-based theory that is often of only background relevance. We do the death stuff about policies and legal responsibilities and the like – how does this help them improve their on-the-job performance? Then, when the course does get around to the skills-based ‘let’s have a go stuff’, it’s in a classroom that does not relate to their workplace. In a recent article in the Safety & Health Practitioner an experienced manual handling trainer eloquently illustrated the points I am making here – it’s well worth a read (Tudor 2014).

When they get back on the job very little of this is of any use to them. It’s like what we are giving them is a square peg and that doesn’t then fit a round hole when they get back on the job. Line managers and trainees know this through bitter experience. They show up keen to work and for the training to be effective, but we are burying them under a mountain of theory that is not helping them to do their job. They see health and safety training as a theoretical exercise not relevant to their daily work. To them, we are just an irritating waste of their time, and this is an entirely rational judgement – because often we are!

If what we give them is not clearly linked to showing them how to do their job safely, and not in some general way, I mean blow-by-blow ‘this is how you perform your role safely’, then surely we should not be surprised by their apathy, even hostility? This is one reason why line managers and trainees are alienated by health and safety training.

So, how do we fix this? In my opinion we need to talk less about health and safety and focus more on what the trainee needs to do to work safely. This is not a minor point. It means binning our current approach and taking a new direction – it’s a 180 degree change of direction. It is by definition based in and on each trainee’s workplace. Instead of delivering training from the point of view of the technical information, we turn it on its head and approach it from the point of view of the trainee’s job, incorporating the technical information where appropriate.

Take manual handling training as one example. With this approach there would no longer be one standard manual handling course but rather a specific training course for each position or role in the organisation, into which we incorporate the necessary manual handling principles. Such training will also cover any other relevant health and safety principles so as to provide a single multi-faceted course that says to trainees – ‘here is your job and this is how you do it safely and effectively’.

Crucially, in this approach the training content must be based on what actually happens in the trainee’s workplace and not some theoretical set-up in a training room. We have to extend our training into the workplace and find solutions to the messy real-world constraints faced by each trainee in each job performed.

This new approach means there will be a big increase in the volume of training courses – because you need a course for each job or role in your organisation. If you like – there’s going to be hundreds or thousands of training pegs each fitting into its relevant job role. It’s going to be a library of ‘this is how you do your job safely’ courses.

How else can we train employees to do their jobs safely if the course is not specifically about their job as it is carried out in their workplace? This fragmentation of training is a challenge. But, before you file this idea under ‘Too Difficult’ in your waste paper bin – please bear with me. Most of what you need is already in place, it just needs the right support.

A note on the knowledge element of the competence triangle

I’ve talked mostly about the skills corner of the triangle, but as we’ve seen there is need for improvement in the knowledge corner to make it more relevant as well. As I have said, theory is essential – but it’s a question of content and balance.

Take as an example learning to drive. In addition to learning how to operate the controls of the car (skills) you also learn theory, such as the highway code (knowledge). Learning the highway code does not specifically tell you how to operate the car, but it is helpful when deciding which behaviour to use from the repertoire of skills learnt.

It is, however, all a question of balance. The theory that you provide, just like the highway code, needs to be useful. Useful theory means that it has some operational relevance to the job specific behaviour we are seeking.


There is a lot of confusion in the health and safety world as to the role of the different corners of the competence triangle. There is often a working assumption that theoretical education is sufficient to develop a skilled behavior – it is not – it is just the first step.

The content of both the theory and skill elements is often irrelevant to the realities faced by the trainees when they return to work.

If you want to get more on-the-job implementation of required skills you need to provide both theoretical know-how as well as skills development support.

The content of both needs to be specific to each trainee’s job so as to provide ‘this is how you do your job safely’ support. The skills development element needs to be based on and in the workplace, and, is a gradual process not a one-off event.

Ian Pemberton is a chartered ergonomist who has a specific interest in the psychology of adult learning. He helps implements solutions for job-skills development and employee competency from a health and safety perspective. Ian is Managing Director of Human Focus. Contact via LinkedIn here.

A short video of presentation of this article can be viewed here.

Share your thoughts on this article and see what others have said in a top trending Official IOSH LinkedIn discussion thread based on this article here.



Axtell C. et al. (1997) Predicting Immediate and Longer Term Transfer of Training, Personnel Review, Vol. 26, No. 3, pp. 201–213

Tudor S. (2014) Healthcare: why people handling training is not relevant, Safety & Health Practitioner

Clark C. et al. (1993) Exploratory Field Study of Training Motivation: Influences of Involvement, Credibility and Transfer Climate, Group and Organisation Management, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 292–307


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