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March 3, 2010

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Creative and engaging health and safety training

Fed up of flipcharts? Sick of slides? Training doesn’t have to be tedious, as a trio of creative and engaging new methods investigated by Tina Weadick and Vic Motune demonstrates.

Training – undertaking it, organising it and even delivering
it – looms large in the lives of safety and health practitioners, not least because it is prescribed by law.1 In SHP’s recent readership survey,2 just 2 per cent of respondents said their firm does not use training services, while 73 per cent said they are significantly involved in training provision.

Many organisations still see ‘training’ in terms of classrooms, courses and Powerpoint presentations, but there is a wide world of progressive ideas and methods out there, beyond the traditional ‘sit, listen and walk away’ format.

Training is anything that offers a learning and/or developmental experience, so it doesn’t have to be confined to the classroom or lecture hall. If it is to make a real difference to the trainee, in terms of what they get from it and how they act on it in their subsequent working lives, training must be engaging, innovative and, above all, relevant – both to their work and their personal learning style.3

Providing people with knowledge and experiences that involve elements they enjoy in their personal lives can have a significant effect on how well, and to what extent they apply that knowledge in their professional roles. Following are three examples of innovative and effective training methods that are currently being used with great success by some of the UK’s leading companies.

Video killed the flipchart tsar
It would be great to think that health and safety training was something people looked forward to, but the truth is that the subject often comes across as dry and unengaging. So – as with any training – the drier the topic, the ‘spicier’ you have to make the delivery.
This is why video, and 3D video in particular, can have such appeal. According to Andrew Downie, a consultant at creative communications agency The Team,4 using progressive technology like 3D video not only shows employees that the organisation takes the subject seriously enough to commit to a form of training that isn’t cheap but also makes that training a lot more enjoyable.

When asked why, Downie says: “Well, instead of the classroom, the employees are in the cinema. Very few 30 and 40-somethings will recall what lessons they learned at school in 1977, but they will all remember watching Star Wars! Digital 3D is as fresh and new to audiences today as the ‘Death Star’ was back then.

“Good training has to be memorable, especially in health and safety, where getting it wrong can lead to serious injuries. It has to be effective, obviously, and it has to deliver value for money. While 3D video is admittedly expensive, the truth is that it engages staff, hooks their attention from the start, and ensures what they have learnt will stick in their minds long after they’ve left the room. The upshot will be fewer accidents and lower insurance costs so, like all good training, it pays for itself.”

Case Study: EDF Energy
EDF Energy is one of the UK’s largest utility companies. It employs 20,000 people, generates about a fifth of the UK’s electricity, and delivers it to about 8 million customer homes and businesses.
The company takes health and safety training very seriously because the risks posed by electricity are so significant. Although the nature of the messages the company needs to get across to its employees is serious, the company opted to convey them via a 12-minute long 3D film that was colourful, prop-filled, and light-hearted in tone but which ensured the crucial information and advice literally jumped out at the audience.

Energy Sourcing and Customer Supply Greatest Show on Safety is presented around a circus theme – it invites the audience to “enter the house of hazards, experience terror in a typical suburban home, and see gravity-defying feats of foolishness”.

Tim Boylin, health and safety director for energy sourcing and customer supply at EDF Energy, explains: “We launched the campaign using a circus theme, which we thought would bring colour to what can be a dry subject area. However, the underlying message remained serious and attendees will have taken away with them safety tips for the home and when driving, as well as enlightening advice from external experts about physical well-being and staying safe at work.”

The video presents advice for staff using ladders, or ‘stilt walkers’, heavy lifting (the ‘strong man’), and the use of modern fire-safety equipment in the ‘ring of fire’. Green screens were used to shoot the live action, and props and background detail were later added using editing software. Filming in 3D can be up to four times more expensive than regular video because of the specialist equipment required, so the scenes for the film had to be shot in just one day to remain within the budget.

This 3D film has had quite an impact. A total of 3468 staff attended the health and safety roadshow in 2008. In 2009, up to 1 December – when the roadshow was half way through its tour – 4171 staff had seen the film. The company estimates it should have a 300-per-cent increase on 2008’s figure by the time the roadshow comes to a close.

Adds Boylin: “Feedback from staff has so far been positive – they have welcomed it as a refreshing change to presenting health and safety information – and we will look to repeat more unique safety-focused roadshows next year.”

Dramas and crises
One of the greatest challenges for any health and safety professional is not just to raise awareness of health and safety issues but to fundamentally shift thinking, behaviour and attitudes towards them.
Arguably, some traditional training methods are not designed to effect this kind of change. Take, for example, the lecture, or conference-based training format. Here, staff and managers are expected to listen and absorb messages, and then go forth and apply them to their working lives. Unfortunately, what is taught today is often forgotten tomorrow, particularly when people have hectic schedules to stick to.

Active learning methods, where participants are actually engaged and involved in the training process, are far more likely to result in greater retention of information by the trainees. One such method is to use drama and theatre in the training process. The concept of drama is to learn by doing and by experience rather than listening, or being told.5

David Kolb, chairman and founder of Experience Based Learning Systems, sums it up thus:  “What I see I forget, what I hear and see I remember a little, but what I hear, see, discuss and do allows me to acquire knowledge and skill.”

So how does it work? Through theatre, actors can replicate real-life health-and-safety scenarios in a controlled and safe environment. The scenarios allow the audience to influence and interact with the storyline as it unfolds in front of them. At various stages, the audience can stop, rewind, or forward the action, giving their feedback on how they would react and what they would do in the situation. The actors then demonstrate a likely reaction to their decisions, and so the learning process ensues.

Through this process the audience of trainees is able to relate to and connect with the scenario, just as they would in a real situation. They may have seen a similar accident or situation in their working lives, or heard about it from a friend or colleague. They may have already experienced it themselves. By tapping into real emotions, real events, and memories, drama can make a big impact by changing the way people think about health and safety because it actually begins to mean something.

In essence, drama works because it is an interactive and inclusive approach that connects to emotions, not intellect. By influencing people’s emotions organisations can bring about long-term changes in the behaviour of their staff, not just a short-term boost in awareness.

Case study: First Group
Transport operator First Group has spent years trying to get its staff to take personal responsibility for health and safety rather than relying on top-down initiatives, but this requires a complete change in thinking.

In 2006, drama was used for the first time at First Group’s annual safety conference in Warwick, involving senior managers and executives. The idea was to engage coach and bus operators and fundamentally change their attitudes to health and safety. The key message was simple: each and every staff member is personally responsible for health and safety and, ultimately, it is the individual’s actions that count, not corporate regulation.

A 20-minute play called Jim’s Story was created and performed for the conference. The play explored the aftermath of a fatal road-traffic accident, in which a young child is hit by a bus at a school crossing. The play focused on the shocking emotional impact on the bus driver, his family, and work colleagues, as well as on the little girl’s family.

Through this simple piece of drama, a lasting emotional trigger was created that helped staff think about responsibility, and the consequences of their actions. The play encouraged the audience to ask themselves important questions, such as: What if that were me? How would I cope? Could I live with the guilt? What impact do my actions have on others?

During breaks in Jim’s Story the audience was invited to discuss the key issues covered in the play – in this way, drama sparked discussion and debate, it posed difficult questions, and forced people to consider the issues at hand. There were no hiding places; at the end of the sessions each participant was given a little girl’s hair bobble as a reminder of the child who was killed. Though a simple gesture, this had a powerful and lasting impact.

Naveed Qamar, Group safety director for First Group, says: “The reaction to Jim’s Story when it was first performed at a conference was beyond our expectations. There was a real buzz that never existed before. For the first time, we witnessed an emotional engagement and opening of the minds to the safety message.”

I wanna tell you a story
Mention the word storytelling and an image of young kids at a playgroup, or cowboys sitting around a campfire listening to old folk tales is probably what comes to mind. So, it’s not much of a surprise that few health and safety trainers would think this ancient art form has any relevance to the work they do.

But that may be changing. Multinationals like Nike, Walt Disney and Parcelforce have all used corporate storytelling for years as a way of communicating the company’s vision to employees. Now a small but growing band of innovative UK companies are winning support for the idea that it can also be an effective way of getting key health and safety messages across.

“When we talk about storytelling in health and safety training, we’re not talking about getting a group of employees together and telling them a fairy tale,” says Alan Heap, chief executive of Purple Monster,6 who has used storytelling in his work with companies such as BP Refining, Mercedes and BT. “What we mean by stories are the everyday experiences of employees and managers told to others using the narrative structure of a story. It’s a simple but effective way of illustrating why health and safety principles matter. Stories work because they reach out to the emotions of the person who is the listener, as opposed to something that is just factual.”

According to Heap, the trouble with the standard health and safety approach is that employees can get fed up of it. He explains: “You might tell them a thousand times about a standard safety procedure, such as avoiding wet floors, but then they feel like they’re being lectured to. But if you tell them the real-life story of a man who was badly injured and forced to quit work after slipping on a wet floor while trying to move machinery – something that only happened because he ignored his employer’s risk assessment – then it’s a much more emotionally engaging way of getting the same information across.”

He concludes: “The more potently we can share that experience, the better the understanding, the more effective the learning, and, as a result, the important lessons will remain with us.”

Heap is not alone in his enthusiasm for storytelling as a training tool. The organisers of this year’s National Storytelling Week (which took place at the beginning of February) put together teams of storytellers to work with businesses across the UK, showing them its value as a communication tool.

But storytelling as it is used in the workplace is not a training method that involves people standing in front of an audience telling tales for hours. Explains Alan Heap: “We always work experientially so the first thing we do is break up the group into pairs and get them working on storytelling techniques. They’ll be asked to share simple stories about their experiences of, for example, customer service. This way, it’s possible to pick out some of the ways in which a story is being told, its effect on listeners, and what the key messages are.”

The participants are then given feedback along the lines of: “There’s something about the words you’ve used which is very powerful”; or: “That story really gets your message across.” Once the group is comfortable with storytelling methods, it’s time to start sharing stories that are relevant to health and safety. Adds Heap: “Their experiences and concerns, whether they are about personal safety, operational safety or corporate safety, are explored and, by sharing and listening to those stories, an effective platform for learning is created.”

Heap says some moving stories can come out of sessions like these. “Most people would say that knowing where the fire exit is is a useful thing to know, but it’s probably the last thing on your mind when you’ve got things to do. But at one session, this guy stood up and said ‘I’m going to share with you what happened to me when I was caught in a fire at a hotel’. And you could see members of the group suddenly start paying attention.

“He described not being able to see anything in the pitch black because all the electricity had gone, thick smoke everywhere, people screaming and crying. But he explained how he’d taken the time the day before to find out where the fire exit was. And as the fire was raging, he remembered where it was, crawled along the route to it and eventually escaped to safety. The basic message was one the group had heard many times before but hearing a story told like this really made them think.

“And since I heard it, ten years ago, every time I’ve checked into a hotel since, no matter where it is, I have made time to find out where the fire exit is!”

1    The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 requires duty-holders to provide whatever information, instruction, training and supervision as is necessary to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of employees. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 identify situations where health and safety training is particularly important.
The Health and Safety (Training for Employment) Regulations 1990 ensure that learners doing work experience are covered by health and safety law. Various other regulations also include specific health and safety training requirements, e.g. asbestos, diving and first aid
2    For a summary of the results of the survey, which was carried out in September/October 2009, see the Need to Know section of the January 2010 issue of SHP
3    For more information on learning styles, see the article by Michael Millward, ‘Don’t stop til you get enough‘, in the August 2009 issue of SHP
5    Forum Interactive is a learning and development consultancy that uses theatre, drama and active learning techniques to help organisations address serious issues, challenge assumptions, generate new ideas and identify solutions –

Tina Weadick is editor of SHP and Vic Motune is a freelance journalist.

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