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

By IANPEMBERTON | Published: 17/11/2014

Please comment on this blog via this LinkedIn discussion group

Do you wish you could get more on-the-job implementation of skills from your health and safety training?

You spend a lot of time and resources developing and delivering health and safety training. If trainees don’t put into practice on-the-job what they have been taught then what is the point of all this effort?

In my 25 years of experience of working as an ergonomist helping employers to design and deliver health and safety training, every specialist that I’ve ever met is always seeking ways of getting more on-the-job implementation of required skills. This wish is universal – it’s just a matter of degree. Some say that they’ve achieved success but want more. More commonly, they say that there is still a long way to go.

When I ask if employees are willing participants in health and safety training I often get an ironic laugh.

Look, let’s be honest, this is the general perception of health and training session – it’s boring. Where trainees respond with apathy even hostility. Line managers are often not involved and not supportive.

Do we seriously believe that this tired format is actually delivering improved on-the-job performance?

In this series of blogs I am going to explore evidence-based principles that will enable you to transform your health training system into a key driver of job-skills competency – in other words – how you can supercharge on-the-job performance. What I will show is that there are all too often fundamental design flaws in our approach which virtually guarantee there will be little or no implementation on-the-job – our basic approach is doomed to failure before we even start.

These design flaws not only explain the apathy or hostility of line managers and trainees, but will show you why their reaction is actually completely rational! I will show how surprisingly simple changes in your approach can have a major impact to where line managers are instantly transformed into enthusiastic champions of your training system. Where you see them achieving amazing improvements in on-the-job performance of their colleagues. Where risk is being genuinely managed and not just boxed ticked. And, all of this attributable to your health and safety training programmes! What a sense of a job well done that would be!

So, if you will spare a few more minutes of your time, let’s take a look at the first of these changes.

Do we need to abolish health and safety training if we want to make it relevant and practical?

I realise the above question may sound pretty outrageous but the situation is this – to overcome the design flaws I have referred to leads to one logical conclusion – to fix them I believe we need to abolish, if not all, then some health and safety training as it is typically configured and replace it with something very different.

Take look at this diagram:

Your ultimate goal is to develop competent employees, competence being a mix of suitable knowledge, skills and experience – the competence triangle as shown above. Knowledge (AKA awareness raising, education, e-Learning) is the theory – the know-how. Skill (AKA training, coaching) is the practical bit – the hands-on application of the know-how. Knowledge and skills are joined at the hip – you can’t do until you know how. Hence you need both. But, it is important not to confuse them. Just because you know how, does not mean you can do, indeed these elements involve very different learning strategies.

In my experience the knowledge and skills elements of the competence triangle are routinely confused. A lot of what passes as ‘health and safety training’ is in fact exclusively health and safety education or awareness raising – courses that go no further than presenting theoretical know-how. For example, any course taken on an e-Learning system, now an extremely popular tool, is often the sole means of providing ‘training’ but is in fact education not training.

This not a criticism of e-Learning – it’s a very useful tool. But, it is essential to understand that completing an e-Learning course is just the first step towards developing and implementing a skilled behaviour on-the-job.

Experience is simply a measure of how many times and in what range of situations you have applied your skills and knowledge.

The main problem is that the skills element of this learning triangle usually has little chance of changing behaviour in the workplace – let’s take at look at why.

The content of skill-based training is often defective

A key finding of adult learning research is that employees who believe that their education or training will be useful to them in their job or career are far more likely to be motivated to learn and, crucially, apply what they have learnt in the workplace. (e.g. Clarke et al.1993, Axtell et al. 1997). In other words – ‘is this stuff going to be any use to me when I get back to work?’. This focus by adults on the practical usefulness during learning is a central andragogy principle. In other words – ‘is this stuff going to be any use to me when I get back to work?’.

However, in my experience, in health and safety training sessions too much time is taken up by knowledge-based theory that is often of only background relevance. We do to death stuff about policies and legal responsibilities and the like – how does this help them improve their on-the-job performance? Then, when the course does get around to the skills-based ‘let’s have a go stuff’, it’s in a classroom that does not relate to their workplace. Here is an article from an experienced manual handling trainer that sums-up eloquently the points I am making here:

When they get back on the job – very little of this is of any use to them. It’s like what we are giving them is a square peg and that doesn’t then fit a round hole when they get back on the job.

Line managers and trainees know this through bitter experience. This is the first reason why line managers and trainees are alienated by health and safety training – that’s right it’s only the first of many – but that’s for future blogs.

They show up keen to work and for the training to be effective, but, we are burying them under a mountain of theory that is not helping them to do their job. They see the training as a theoretical exercise not relevant to their daily work. To them, we are just an irritating waste of their time, and this is an entirely rational judgement – because often we are!

If what we give them is not clearly linked to showing them how to do their job, and not in some general way, I mean blow-by-blow “this how you perform your role”, then surely we should not be surprised by their apathy, even hostility?

So, do we fix this? In my opinion we need to talk less about health and safety and focus more on what the trainee needs to do to work safely. This is not a minor point – it’s a 180 degree change of direction. It is by definition based in and on each trainee’s workplace. Instead of delivering training from the point of view of the technical information we turn it on its head and approach it from the point of view of the trainees job incorporating the technical information where appropriate.

Take manual handling training as an example. With this approach there would no longer be one standard manual handling course but rather a specific training course for each position or role in the organisation into which we incorporate the necessary manual handling principles. Such training will also cover any other relevant health and safety principles so as to provide a single multi-faceted course that says to trainees – ‘here is your job and this is how you do it safely and effectively’.

Crucially, in this approach the training content is based on what actually happens in the trainee’s workplace.

This approach means there will be a big increase in the volume of training courses because each course will be bespoke to each role within each organisation.

If you like – there’s going to be hundreds or thousands of training pegs each fitting into it’s relevant job role. It’s going to be a huge library of bespoke training courses for your organisation.

How else can we train employees to do their jobs safely if the course is not specifically about their job – as it is carried out in their workplace? This fragmentation of training is a challenge. But, before you file this idea under ‘To Difficult” in your waste paper bin – please bear with me. Most of what you need is already in place, it just needs the right support – I will look at this in future blog posts.

A note on the knowledge element of the competence triangle

I’ve talked a lot about the skills corner of the triangle, but as we’ve seen there is need for improvement in the knowledge corner to make it more relevant as well. As I have said, a certain amount of theory is essential – but it’s a question of content and balance.

Take as an example learning to drive. In addition to learning how to operate the controls of the car (skills) you also learn theory, such as the highway code (knowledge). Learning the highway code does not specifically tell you how to operate the car, but it is helpful when deciding which behaviour to use from the repertoire of skills learnt.

It is, however, all a question of balance. The theory that you provide, just like the highway code, needs to be useful. Useful theory means that it has some operational relevance to the job specific behaviour we are seeking. In future blog posts I’ll explain how you can make the knowledge element of your courses more relevant and specific to each trainee’s role and drive on-the on-the-job performance


Thanks for watching – I hope you found it useful. You’ll find below this video a full transcript of this blog including references to the research that I have referred to.

There’s also a link to a LinkedIn discussion group set-up to explore this blog in more detail – I’d really like to hear what you think – please leave a comment.

In the next blog post I will show you how everything you need to develop the large library of bespoke training courses is right under your nose! And, how these courses can be produced and maintained with very little extra effort.


Axtell C. et al. (1997) Predicting Immediate and Longer Term Transfer of Training, Personnel Review, Vol. 26, No. 3, pp. 201–213

Clark C. et al. (1993) Exploratory Field Study of Training Motivation: Influences of Involvement, Credibility and Transfer Climate, Group and Organisation Management, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 292–307