The secret to making training stick

Expensive safety training sessions wasted without followup, finds IWH study
By Trevor King
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/20/2014

It’s a scenario seen time and time again: Workers come back from a training program and show improvements — for awhile. But then routine sets in, work pressures push aside the new learning and people slide back into old habits.

Within a few months, it’s almost like that costly training program never happened.

So how can organizations make safety training stick? If employers want to see continued improvements in workers’ safety practices, they should add a few followup sessions that help workers build the confidence to put their new learning to use.

That’s according to a recent study from the Institute of Work & Health (IWH) that looked at the effectiveness of ergonomics training for office workers.

“A lot of organizations do training by having a trainer parachute in, offer the training, then leave,” says IWH senior scientist Ben Amick, who led the study.

“We think that if you want to change practices, there has to be some followup to support employees on using their new skills.”

The study compared the effectiveness of four different ways of delivering ergonomics training: online, in-person, online with followup and in-person with followup. The good news? It doesn’t matter that much whether training is delivered in-person or online — both are about equally effective, according to the study.

The better news? Whichever format is used, it doesn’t take much to make the training stick.

Online versus in-person

Amick’s team recruited more than 400 office workers from five organizations across southern Ontario in the municipal, education and utility sectors. Building on prior research, the team used an ergonomics training curriculum.

Both the classroom and online training offered the same evidence-based, standard-compliant, nine-module content. Both took about 90 minutes to complete, though online learners had the flexibility to leave and pick up the training anytime they wanted during a three- to four-week window.

Study participants were broken into five groups. One group received only the classroom training and another only the online training. The third group was given the classroom training plus followup, and the fourth group was given the online learning plus followup.

The followup consisted of three half-hour group sessions that took place once per month for three months after the initial training. Supervisors of the two followup groups also took part in a 90-minute group session focused on ways to support workers.

The fifth group, acting as the study’s control group, was given no training at all and instead was simply provided links to ergonomics information on Ontario’s Ministry of Labour website.

Measuring the outcomes

The research team tracked several scores at several intervals — before the training and at three, six and nine months after the training. The team measured workers’ knowledge about ergonomics, their postures, their workstation configurations, workstation adjustments and the daily change in pain or discomfort.

They also measured what’s called “self-efficacy” — in this case, the confidence workers had in their own ability to solve their workstation problems and help co-workers do the same.

In most measures, the team found better outcomes with those who received training than those who didn’t.

“What that says is training matters,” says Amick. “That’s good to know.”

Also, at the three-month check-in, the research team found scores for both the online learners and the classroom learners tracked pretty closely to one another.

“So if you as a manager or a trainer have been wondering whether to offer elearning or in-person training, the answer is: Just pick one,” says Amick. “You’d be fine either way.”

However, in the groups that didn’t have the followup training, the improvements across many measures started to level off after three months. In contrast, the two groups that received the followup sessions continued to make improvements.

The only measure where differences were not found between the groups was that of pain symptoms. This seems surprising but could have been due to the low level of pain symptoms to begin with, he says.

The team also made a few observations about learner behaviour during the study. Though untested scientifically, the following notes may have some bearing on whether a training program is likely to stick:

Self-efficacy may be the key: Self-efficacy is the confidence workers have in their ability to apply their new knowledge. This should be a key objective in training design, says Amick.

“It has built-in momentum,” he says. “In our study, the more people changed their workstations to reduce risk, the more confidence they gained and the more actively they engaged in managing their health and office workplace.”

Self-efficacy may be a key factor in the effectiveness of other types of health and safety training as well, though further research is needed on this, he says.

Third session’s the charm: A good group dynamic assisted in building confidence and self-efficacy.

“The group facilitator’s role was partly to answer questions, as an expert in ergonomics,” says Amick. “But, mostly, the facilitator’s role was to build effective group dynamics. And, typically, it took about three sessions for groups to gel. What you want to see is workers talking with each other to solve problems.”

Supervisors play key role: Supervisors need to be reminded that people are watching them and they play a key role in modelling health and safety norms. And contrary to the common view that it’s difficult to find supervisors willing to participate in training, Amick’s team found the supervisors taking part in this study were more than eager.

“If they see the benefit for them, they’ll take part,” he says.

Trevor King, a member of the research team looking into the effectiveness of different methods of delivering ergonomics training, is a knowledge transfer associate at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). IWH is an independent, not-for-profit organization that conducts research to promote and protect the safety and health of working people. To sign up for its news, visit www.iwh.on.ca/e-alerts.

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