Keep employees engaged, and they get the message

Evaluate each training session

We've all been there — sitting through required training sessions so dull that it's all the participants can do to stay awake, much less absorb what's being said. As an occupational health professional, you don't want to be the presenter of a program like that, since the information you are conveying impacts employees' health.

Knowing your subject inside and out is only part of the equation for a successful training session that accomplishes what you intend. But an encyclopedic mind about wellness or safety issues won't guarantee your audience will stay awake and absorb what you're offering. A presenter who eats, breathes, and sleeps transportation safety, for example, is a wasted resource if he or she is an uninspiring trainer.

To make lengthy training or even short lunch-and-learn sessions pay off in terms of worker safety and health, a presenter has to know the audience, know the topic, and know how those two things mesh.

"One of the big things I think that is very important is to start by evaluating the previous year's training, if possible," says Cathy Cronin, chief of the division of training and educational development for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) office of training and education.

"Especially if this is refresher training, meet with some members of the previous group to get feedback from the year before. Review the facilitators and materials. Make sure you don't offer the same thing every year — that's deadly," she says.

Second verse, same as the first?

Periodic refresher training is required by many OSHA standards and company and industry regulations. Besides being regulatory requirements, of course, it's just good safety practice to keep workers up to date with refresher training.

But presenting the same information over and over again in a way that keeps repeat audiences engaged is a challenge. And if there's some new information buried within the old, it can get lost if the format leads employees to tune out.

"If it's a regulatory issue and you have to cover these topics again and again, you have to chunk the content and re-present it in a different way so it doesn't sound like what they heard last year," says Cronin. "If I am going to be presenting to the same group at the same employer, I would see if I can get fresh presenters, so I can get lots of variation in there."

She also suggests doing a postmortem after the training to find out what was effective and what needs to be freshened up.

"I would pull together some focus groups and get input from people on how to make it work for them, since we'll be faced with doing this again," she says. "Ask them how they're going to apply [the information they learned] to their jobs."

Getting this feedback serves two purposes, Cronin points out. One, it gives the trainer ideas for making the information useful and interesting to the audience and may yield some creative ideas for the next session. Two, it sends the message to employees that their opinions count and that you, as an employer, want to be sure they aren't wasting their time.

"They might suggest, for example, some job aids they use in the workplace that you can introduce in the program, which would be helpful because it is something that has proved to be really useful to them," she says.

A focus group done shortly before the refresher can measure what participants remember from the earlier session, letting the trainer know what points need to be emphasized and what can be handled with less attention.

"Now you understand your audience better, so when you do your content, you can be more creative and design it for the employees," Cronin says.

Even if there's no changing the information that is presented, mixing up how it's presented can keep the audience engaged. Presenting facts in a PowerPoint slide show might work once, but it's a guaranteed nap if given to the same audience at refresher meetings. Cronin suggests repackaging information in a game format — Jeopardy! is a popular format, she says — to draw in audience participation and make the training more fun.

Emphasize new information

Whenever possible, emphasize what's new in the program being presented, and show how it is relevant to the audience. New policies and work rules, new hazards that have been introduced, and new procedures and equipment that have been installed since the last training session can be used to make the presentation seem less repetitious. If any of those changes have resulted in more or different accidents, that can be an attention getter as well.

"Find out ahead of time who in the audience is already knowledgeable on the subject and use that person," says Cronin. "Peers learn best from peers, so use some of the more experienced peers to help give real-world experiences.

"Ask, 'Frank, when you did this, how did it work for you?' And the audience will listen, because Frank is their guy."

Cronin explains that adults learn best through participation, so any way that interaction can be worked into the presentation will boost interest.

"Anything you can do to get participants involved and to think about why they're doing this will help," she continues. "You can show them what they're going to get out of the training session — if training is on respirator fit testing, for example, open up the training with a demonstration of what they're going to learn, and that shows them there's a reason to pay attention."

An all-lecture format, as anyone who's participated in one can attest, may be the least effective means of getting employees to absorb information and apply it to their own job situations.

"The instructor has to keep them engaged, get them to practice skills in the class, and then use small group sessions to practice," she says. "People learn from other learners, and will ask each other questions that they might not ask the facilitator or instructor."

Apply training to employees' world

Delivering important new information to employees is required; what's really critical, however, is getting them to apply that information to their own jobs. Again, hands-on participation can make the difference, Cronin says.

"Make sure you pay attention to the training environment, and change the environment to make it more real life and not just a classroom," she suggests. " Also, check with the learners all through the day, and ask them how they will apply this to their work site. Help by giving them feedback; if there's any kind of skill or task involved in the training, give them feedback as you go along, so it's not just at the end of the day and they have the mini-tasks or practices to keep them on their toes during the training."

Bring in props that trainees can see and touch, such as a damaged tool that is unsafe, a hazardous chemical container that is missing a label, samples of protective equipment for them to inspect, or a piece of equipment for a demonstration. Reintroduce employees to common safety equipment that they may know how to use in theory but rarely use in practice.

"Have facilitated discussions on equipment, and if you have someone in the audience who's actually used it, have them talk about what they learned," says Cronin. "Maybe someone has actually put on a respirator, or they know of someone who didn't and had harm occur as a result. Get the workers' voices in there — it means much more to hear one of their peers say 'I followed this' or 'I didn't follow this regulation and here's what happened.'"

Making safety training feel personal and important to the individuals being trained hinges on linking what employees know they're supposed to do and what employees will actually do when faced with a risk.

"We did some disaster site worker training, and had people saying, 'I knew I should do this, but didn't want to take the time to do it,' so we devoted a lot of training to attitudes, rather than process," Cronin explained. "We put heavy emphasis on clips of workers' families and kids, and how exposures can affect them. Finding out about the things they do care about — what the real issues are to that audience — is the thing you can get from a real good evaluation."

OSHA encountered a number of workers who were involved in the post-9/11 cleanup efforts who are suffering respiratory problems because they found it uncomfortable and inconvenient to wear respirators.

"So, in our new training, we make them put [respirators] on, so they know what it feels like, and then we deal with the attitude," she says. "You have to make it matter to them and to their jobs."

Finally, always document training well. Documentation provides proof that employees have received the training required to avoid regulatory citations and fines, and provides valuable defense in the event of lawsuits or criminal investigations over worker injuries. Documentation also can be used for planning purposes; if documentation is detailed, the person planning a refresher can know who was in attendance at the earlier session and exactly what information was covered.

[For more information, contact:

Cathy Cronin, chief of the division of training and educational development, office of training and education, U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Phone: (847) 297-4810.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, office of training and education training and reference materials library, www.osha.gov/dcsp/ote/materials_library.html.

Hodell C. ISD from the Ground Up. Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training and Development: 2000.]