Skip to content
safety training

Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg

Designing Safety Training That Sticks

Have you ever been forced to sit through a boring workplace safety training program? Perhaps it was taught by an HR professional reading from a binder. Perhaps the lessons being taught did not apply to your job position. Either way, you likely left the session retaining little of the information, despite being able to tick the box that you completed the training.

The challenge of making safety training stick has plagued trainers for decades, and the reasons behind disengaging training are obvious. According to Tristan Casey, chief scientist at health and safety firm Work Science, safety training is particularly challenging for companies because it ticks many of the boxes that make people disengage from the information: training is mandatory, which can trigger pushback; there are limited ways to practice safety responses shortly after training, so people forget quickly; and safety training is often bureaucratized, with a perceived goal of surface compliance—not true engagement. And lastly, safety behaviors—whether helpful or unhelpful ones—can be highly embedded in workers after years of practice, and it can be challenging to break or tweak those habits, Casey says.

Training transfer—the ability to generalize learning and apply lessons outside the classroom—is difficult to achieve and sustain over time, he adds. But there are factors that can enable closer alignment of “training as learned” and “training as done.”

Casey, along with fellow researchers Nick Turner, Xiaowen Hu, and Kym Bancroft, conducted research into training engagement factors, finding that effective training delivers psychological touchpoints at each of the training stages: pre-training, design, and delivery.

“For safety training to ‘stick,’ workers should be affectively, cognitively, and behaviorally engaged in learning, which will result in new knowledge and skills, improvements in attitudes, and new safety behaviors in the workplace,” the authors wrote in Making safety training stickier: A richer model of safety training engagement and transfer, published in the Journal of Safety Research. “To enable engagement, practitioners must apply adult learning principles, make the training relevant, and tailor the training to the job and individual needs.”

That supervisor support has been shown consistently to be a really strong predictor of transfer.

“If we optimize things around those three levels of safety training, you get a really good outcome,” Casey says. “And all of those things create safety training engagement: you’re emotionally engaged or having a connection on an emotional level; cognitively engaged—you’re interested in the material; and behaviorally you’re getting involved in the activities or exercises.”

To achieve this and maximize retention, Casey recommends tailoring training to fit the organizational culture or even tailoring it to the individual based on his or her unique background, motivations, or prior experience.

Organizationally, trainers should assess what the overall attitude toward training is across the company to set the context—are people generally supportive of training initiatives or resistant, for example. While that attitude can be slow to change, training program leaders can make a difference when designing training packages to ensure the path to training transfer is a smooth one, Casey says.

“Supervisors can offer follow up with people after the training, having one-on-one conversations about what they’ve learned,” he says. “That supervisor support has been shown consistently to be a really strong predictor of transfer.”

Reward initiatives, where if people demonstrate the trained behaviors they get some recognition or valued prize, can help produce a workplace climate that values and prioritizes training and learning beyond superficial compliance.

Where training design is concerned, Casey recommends that program managers consult workers about training effectiveness, design, and preferences. “When it comes to delivery, those adult learning principles—leveraging the knowledge of the people in the room—are really important,” he notes. Also reassess who is delivering the training—is the trainer credible and familiar? Or is he or she an outside representative who trainees neither know nor trust?

Trainers can also integrate safety training into existing systems and processes. This enables workers to be reminded of their training more regularly, improving training transfer and long-term muscle memory. For example, psychology-based training about risk assessments and awareness can be leveraged on a daily basis by distributing risk assessment cards to workers and encouraging them to refer to the cards as they perform their usual tasks. This tangible reminder helps to cue a repeatable safety response, turning training lessons into habits.

Organizations can also leverage technology to make training more rich and effective. This can align with the trend toward serious games and gamification of training, especially if a company’s training reward or recognition system fuels competition among workers to fulfill training criteria and best follow the lessons, Casey says.

Mining companies have also used augmented reality training tools to produce immersive environments where employees can train for an emergency without being exposed to hazards, he says. Now that virtual reality technology is more affordable and customizable, more private organizations can take advantage of it by developing 360-degree pictures of worksites or interactive environments. Training in these virtual settings can include searching for signs of hazards or safety violations or interacting with a scenario to test emergency response protocols and trainees’ emotional reactions during a crisis.

“The role of emotion is something that is really understudied in safety training,” Casey says. In high-stakes situations in particular, fear, frustration, or hesitation about a hazard can be helpful, and these self-protective instincts can help safety training stick more effectively. “This is an area we need to do a lot more research in. Under what conditions does the fear response result in really deep learning by activating the amygdala and other primal parts of the brain that keep us safe?”

This does not mean that trainers should seek to frighten workers into learning. Instead, they can rely on techniques like storytelling to make the training situation more relatable to trainees, enabling them to see themselves in the protagonist’s shoes and follow along more empathetically, Casey notes.

Trainers can also leverage error training, where people are encouraged to make mistakes in training sessions so they can learn from their mistakes more deeply and share their decision-making processes with colleagues.

“Through that process of making errors and mistakes, people actually learn a much deeper appreciation for the concepts that are being taught,” Casey says. “It takes it away from that one-way firehose of information. People are actually getting messy, getting into the training, figuring it out, making mistakes, and that mistake-making process really creates a deeper awareness of how this is going to play out in the workplace under realistic conditions.”

In case this sounds expensive, Casey assures that the return on investment for effective training is well worth a few extra hours of planning and course design.

“Some of these interventions aren’t all that expensive because it just involves perhaps supervisors incorporating training into their performance appraisals—it’s little tweaks,” he says. “I’m a big believer in not inventing new processes to support training transfer. It’s about what we’re already doing and how we integrate the training transfer processes into those messages.

“For many organizations, they probably waste a lot of time and money going through the compliance process of doing the mandatory fire extinguisher training every year, and people don’t really retain anything from that,” he continues. “So they invested two or three hours of their time. What if we just did one hour of really rich, immersive training that actually got some good outcomes? How much more return on investment would you get out of that particular training experience rather than a self-paced, online, really bland, generic, watered-down training package. If organizations really looked at their ROI on their existing safety training and then said ‘let’s do something that’s shorter and more focused and custom designed,’ the initial outlay of cost and time would soon repay itself.”