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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
August 22, 2012

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Training & career development – Rules of engagement

John Shahabeddin argues that it is possible for practitioners – even those on a restricted budget – to change negative perceptions about health and safety training and create sessions that stimulate, engage and inform delegates.

Throughout my working life, I’ve come to realise an unfortunate truth – something that I think most of us practitioners know but perhaps refuse to admit: mandatory health and safety training is boring.

Having sat in many a session myself, I’ve experienced first hand just how dull it can be. Of course, every now and again, you’ll come across a genuinely engaging session but, on the whole, and especially in the perception of the average worker, it isn’t exactly fun, is it?

This is a definite problem. Training is not only a means of increasing competence and awareness about hazards and risks it is a sounding board for practitioners to change the image of the profession – but that’s just not happening enough at the moment.

In the current economic climate, many practitioners are increasingly taking on the role of trainer in a bid to reduce costs. I believe this is an exciting opportunity to facilitate change; if we are to alter perceptions and target hearts and minds, health and safety training has to change. It needs to move forward and become more engaging and entertaining for the masses.

Many NEBOSH, IOSH, etc. tutors may disagree that health and safety training is boring, but they are preaching, somewhat, to the converted: people who want to be in the training room, who have an interest in health and safety, and who want to be involved in the profession some day.

But what about the millions of office workers, managers, refuse collectors, transport operatives, directors, and all the rest, that need training in the likes of manual handling, risk assessment, DSE, and fire awareness, among other things? That’s a lot of people and a lot of training and, for the person who has to deliver it, there’s nothing worse than walking into a room full of people who really don’t want to be there because they think they’ll be bored.

It all starts with you

The trick is to convince others about what we in the profession already know – that health and safety is not at all boring! It is an amazingly diverse mixture of disciplines – from medicine, law and management to psychology, sociology and engineering – all held together with a healthy dollop of common sense. With the right approach, there is absolutely no reason that it can’t be interesting, engaging and, dare I say it, fun.

Key to the delivery of effective and fun health and safety training is the trainer. The trainer is responsible not only for delivering information but also for developing an ethos in the training room.

Not everyone is a natural-born trainer. You need to be confident, passionate, assertive, knowledgeable, and, above all else, adaptable: able to change your delivery quickly to suit the delegates’ backgrounds, tastes, sensitivities, and even moods. But even if you don’t tick all these boxes, with the right approach you can still engage delegates effectively.

In my view, the most important quality in a trainer is a sense of humour. It’s amazing how much people learn when they laugh doing it. Of course, I’m not advocating a comedic sketch-show of a session – health and safety is not a laughing matter after all – but throwing in some funny-but-related stories, a joke or two, or some tongue-in-cheek commentary, works wonders for making the delegates relax and enjoy the training. Strike a good balance between the light-hearted and the serious stuff and you’re half-way there.

The beginning of a training session is perhaps the most important part, and not because of the housekeeping details and ground rules. The first 30 minutes of a session are when the delegates decide whether they’re going to enjoy it or not. Don’t just leap into the training –talk to the attendees, get to know them, and let them get to know you, too. Play games if you like, or ask them to tell you something interesting, funny or embarrassing about themselves. This helps everyone, including you, to relax and sets the scene for a great session.

The best trainer in the world will deliver poorly if the delivery medium used doesn’t stimulate the delegates. PowerPoint is a tremendous piece of software, used probably by every trainer in the world, but this popularity has a downside that thwarts effective training – too much information, or ‘death by PowerPoint’.

If you are going to use PowerPoint, make sure your slides have minimal text, or just bullet points, and use images and animations to create more interest. Try to use PNG (Portable Network Graphics) images, as these look much more professional, with no white backgrounds. If you can’t find these, put borders around your images to tidy them up.

Personally, I can’t stand the pre-set backgrounds available as standard on PowerPoint; they are often unsightly and scream out ‘I couldn’t be bothered’. Creating your own is very easy, and shows the delegates that you’ve taken your time over the slides. I use a plain background, blending from blue to white, with a couple of logos and a plain, easy-to-read font (this also looks better on printed versions of the slides and is helpful for delegates with disorders such as dyslexia).

Remember: slides are your prompt, not a body of text from which to read verbatim! Vary your delivery to get away from ‘the board’, such as practical sessions, interactive props, and group work. For a fresh approach to presenting, try an alternative application, such as the Internet-based Prezi (, or, if you’re feeling brave, no presentation tools at all.

Content is king

In the sessions I deliver, a hazard is not simply ‘something with the potential to cause harm’, it is something that the delegates can see and touch. Hazards can be obvious, intangible, contextual and subjective, and this is reflected in the session. Delegates are given sample jars containing many different items – from razor-blade heads and flour to cat and rat urine, and live mosquitoes – all of which are designed to provoke thought and conversation. They are often surprised to learn that, in the right circumstances, flour can cause explosions, and credit cards can be used as weapons. They leave with a greater understanding of what hazards are and how the seemingly mundane can be dangerous under the right conditions.

As for risk-assessment training, the principles are just that – principles – so they can be applied to an unlimited number of situations. So, why get them to risk-assess activities they do in their own work environments – where’s the fun in that? Get them to risk-assess circus lion-taming, flaming cocktail concocting, and diving with sharks. Of course, later on in the session they can do something more in line with their own work areas but, to begin with, the assessments are only limited by the trainer’s imagination.

Why not let delegates risk-assess an historical event, like the sinking of the Titanic? Or transport them to medieval England for some jousting safety; or safely destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom? Anything is possible!
If you’re using case studies or example surveys, such as DSE self-assessment questionnaires, don’t use the generic ‘Joe Bloggs’ as your subject. Use historical figures, or fictional characters and relate their individual qualities to the survey. For example, Master Yoda is only 2 feet tall – a massive barrier to safe DSE use – and Darth Vader has pre-existing respiratory problems. Both of these issues could easily be encountered in ‘real life’, even if the characters themselves can’t be. Little touches like this inject interest and a bit of humour into the session, making delegates enjoy it more.

Experience is also a strong catalyst for learning, and not only in the practical, ‘on-the-job’ sense. For example, how do you best explain the stress, or fight-or-flight, response? Let them experience it first-hand! Delegates in my sessions watch a short video clip that is designed to give them a fright (after checking that they have no ill-health issues first, of course). What better time to explain what happens inside their bodies when in this state than while it’s occurring? That is high-impact experiential learning that stays with the delegates long after the session is over.

The key with content is to avoid the humdrum. Pick content that is new to the delegates and to you: don’t just regurgitate the things you’ve seen in training before, such as the famous ‘health and safety images’ all over the Web. Everyone knows these, so avoid them. Find new images, or funny video clips on YouTube, or other video sites, linking them directly into your presentation.

Also, try not to download training slides from other organisations, as the temptation is to just copy or adapt them. Training is much more engaging and flows so much better when you’ve designed it yourself from scratch. Get your creative juices flowing – it takes a little more time, but it really is worth it.


Feedback is a trainer’s best friend. It not only provides you with instant information about a session you’ve just delivered but also lets you see your progress over time and identify areas for improvement, much like accident statistics. Most feedback forms contain a numerical scoring system for a number of different categories, such as ‘knowledge and helpfulness of trainer’, or ‘delivery methods used’, and some time should be set aside at the end of each session for delegates to complete them. Feedback forms should also have space for the delegates to make comments on what they liked best, or what they think needs to be improved.

Examples of both that I have received in the past include:

  • “Concise, factual and informative style of delivery. The trainer brought humour into the classroom which made it more enjoyable”;
  • “Good pace and comprehensive. Enjoyed the novel delivery techniques – helped to break up a dry subject”;
  • “Fun risk assessment examples. Friendly trainer, explained things in simple, everyday terms”;
  • “Vary the participants – different working areas so they are not familiar with each other”;
  • “State some resources (e.g. websites) that we could use for further information”;
  • “Provide biscuits!”

Never be disheartened by, or disregard your feedback – it’s an opportunity for you to improve both your performance and the content of your sessions – and, nine times out of ten, you’ll agree with the comments made. It is very important that you listen to the delegates’ views and make the necessary changes to your session. This ensures you are continuously improving your delivery skills and the quality of the service you are providing.

You can also use the written comments from your feedback forms in your internal and external marketing. If delegates are singing about how much they enjoyed a particular session, use their comments on a ‘what delegates have said’ section on your advertising material.


Creating engaging, interesting and fun training takes time, effort and, above all else, imagination, but the rewards for doing so are well worth it. My personal view is that every training session is an opportunity for me to let people know that health and safety is important, but also definitely not boring. It has moved on from the days of checklists, old-school techniques, and patches on the elbows and has become an exciting, dynamic and enterprise-focused profession – there to facilitate, not hinder, business continuity.

With like-minded practitioners at the helm of engaging mandatory training, we’d be one step closer to a definitive improvement in both the safety of the workforce and the image of our profession.
And that’s a double whammy that’s worth the extra effort. 

John Shahabeddin is the corporate health and safety trainer for North Tyneside Council.

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11 years ago

Excellent article John.
Y’know, a few years ago, i was teaching two modules on an IOSH managing safely course. The course was observed by someone from IOSH.
My modules were PUWER and Epidemiological anaysis. I used lots of historicals and funnys to let the class understand epidemilogy. Dissapointingly, the IOSH observer reckoned that my teaching wasn’t up to scratch because i didn’t read the slides to tha class – But the results revealed highest scores in those modules ever!!

11 years ago

Loved this article.Shared bits with my non H&S savvy colleagues and they finally looked interested at the thought of training. Wow!

11 years ago

Thanks for your comments everyone,

I’m glad you enjoyed the article 🙂


11 years ago

I agree – a very nice summary of training ‘best practice’.
Unfortunately, many Senior Managers tend to opt for quick-and-easy ‘tick-the-box’ unfocussed training, with little thought as to what the delegates are going to be asked to do afterwards.
Quality trainers asking pertinent questions in order to design bespoke training are sometimes seen as being impertinent or too challenging.
I agree we have to be imaginative to make it engaging, and you’ve given some great examples.

11 years ago

Thanks for this article. Most rewarding that there are others out there who subscribe to this view.
Unfortunately Health and Safety , and CDM training , has historically added to the problem rather than helped to solve it.. It has been :-
Over complicated
Over loaded
Over zealous
We need to help to break the culture of myths and jargon, keep it simple and make it more sexy.
Great effort…..keep it up.
Paul Bussey