How to get a 90% improvement in your health & safety training

By IANPEMBERTON | Published: 12/02/2015

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This is video is Part 4 in a series of video blogs – previous editions can be viewed here:

Part 1 – Do we need to abolish health & safety training to make it relevant & practical?

Part 2 – The key to turning employees and line managers into training champions

Part 3 – The single most important ingredient for health & safety training success

Cast your mind back to when you were at school or college. Do you remember what it was like a few days before that important exam? There you are burning the midnight oil revising like mad. You did this by going over the same material – repeating it time and again until you had committed it to memory. After this short intense revision you take the exam and are able to show that you had indeed learnt quite a lot. However, you may also recall that after a short time you had forgotten a lot too. If you had to retake the exam even a month later you would have been in trouble. This is what psychologists call the ‘cramming effect. Take a look at this graph which illustrates this effect – we can learn a lot over a short space of time, but we forget just a quickly – this is known as the ‘forgetting curve

If you think about it, a lot of health and safety training is even worse than high school cramming. Unlike your high school revision, which at its most extreme may have occurred over several days, a lot of our training consists of single events during which we expect trainees to have learnt all they need and then to go back to their workplace and apply what they have learnt.

This is not just completely unrealistic, it’s also scary. What the research on the forgetting curve shows is that:

  • After 1 hour trainees will have forgotten approximately 50% of the information your course has delivered – yes 1 hour!
  • After 24 hours, they will have forgotten around 70% of new information, and
  • Within 1 week, they will have forgotten on average 90% of it.

This is an appalling situation and is the dirty secret of health and safety training. The way most of it is delivered means that a lot of what is taught to will be forgotten. Our approach runs contrary to how adults learn and if we are to have any chance of developing skilled behaviour that is applied in the workplace we need to work with the science, not against it.

So what does the research on learning and forgetting tell us? The first thing is that skilled behaviour can only be developed gradually over time. It does not happen as one event. To be developed, it has to be repeated or practised over a period of time. The spacing of these repetitions is also very important and is what’s called the ‘spacing effect’ Take a look at this graph:

The blue line compares what happens if we provide more opportunities to repeat the learning, and, over a longer period of time. The learning becomes far more durable with much better long-term retention. What this shows is that repetition is good, but, that spaced repetition is even better!

See here for more information on he spacing effect

This spacing effect is one of the most studied phenomena in learning research and yet one of the most under-utilised in training. It is like the aspirin of training design – a miracle drug with multiple benefits and few side-effects. Some key findings of the research are:

  • Longer spacing intervals tend to be better than shorter ones – spacing should be a minimum of one-day intervals. There seems to be little benefit in repetitions at shorter intervals than this.
  • Spacing may not produce an effect unless there are more than two or three repetitions.

What you will no doubt have also noticed from the this graph is that regardless of the arrangement of the repetitions, whether long or short, the behaviour will deteriorate over time unless it is reinforced by practice-feedback sessions – where trainees receive feedback on their performance so that they can correct or improve their actions. This is why experienced employees with well developed skills are just as prone to have accidents – their behaviour will naturally deteriorate from the ideal model over time unless they are helped to consciously maintain it. I have already mentioned the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster in a previous blog as an example of this – it was in part caused by a slow deterioration of the rig’s permit to work system. Overtime, the parties involved gradually stopped following the system and it became a meaningless paper exercise. This effect has been termed a ‘drift into failure’

And so, the science tells us that training is not a one-off event – it’s a continuous process. Skills are only developed and maintained by on-going practice-feedback sessions – depicted here by the third green line. The spacing of these maintenance sessions can be gradually increased and the type of feedback provided needs to change as the skill and experience of the trainee increases – I will explore this subject in future blogs

So, to summarise, what all this means is that we have to break free from the traditional model of training as an event where the belief is that learning has clear beginning and end points. To get effective behavioural change, which is maintained over time, we need to provide an on-going programme of carefully scheduled practice-feedback sessions. If this is to a practical exercise it has to be short and easy to administer and delivered in the workplace as part of routine monitoring or checks that are already being undertaken.

It’s another reason why the focus of our training needs to move from the classroom and into the workplace and be firmly placed in the hands of those are the sharp end. It also means that we cannot rely on cramming trainees’ heads with information – they will just forget most of it in a short space of time, particularly if the behaviour is not performed regularly. We have to find new ways of delivering the supporting information they need, if you like reminders of what they need to do, when they need it, and where they need it.

This is so called ‘learning at the moment of need’, where information is delivered by smart work aids, on-the-job. I will look at case studies and ways of achieving this in future blogs. Thanks for watching – please let me know what you think on the LinkedIn discussion group.