Predictably, the most common outcome of safety training is a temporary change in behavior followed by a gradual return to old habits.
By Dr. Judy Agnew, senior vice president, Safety Solutions, Aubrey Daniels International
Training is a necessary but not sufficient component of all safety systems. Employees need to be trained in the hazards of the job and in safety procedures--but is the goal of the training to make people aware or to change their behavior on the job?
If the goal of training is behavior change, there is a fly in the ointment. According to the science of behavior change, training is what is known as an antecedent. Antecedents are events that come before behavior that prompt behavior. Clearly, training fits this definition. The problem is that antecedents rarely lead to long-term behavior change. What happens to people after they behave, known as consequences, has a bigger impact on people’s future behavior. Predictably, the most common outcome of safety training is a temporary change in behavior followed by a gradual return to old habits. The problem is not that people don’t care or don’t want to change. The problem is that training is only an antecedent and does little to affect the consequences in the workplace where the behavior occurs.
Thus, if those consequences favor at-risk behavior, seeing a video on the risks of that behavior will have short-term impact at best.
Training is only a small part of the solution to a complex behavioral problem. The desired impact of safety training is to get a behavior started that then can be positively reinforced in the workplace. Once you understand behavior from a scientific perspective, you can see that the analysis and adjustment of the consequences for problem behaviors is where long-term solutions lie.
To be very clear, this is not a suggestion to abandon safety training. Rather, reserve training for those circumstances for which it is the correct solution, and improve the effectiveness of training so it targets skill development and fluency, rather than awareness.
Before you resort to training as a solution to a safety problem, consider the following:
Dr. Judy Agnew is an authority in the field of behavioral safety and performance management and the co-author of "Safe By Accident: Take the Luck Out of Safety - Leadership Practices That Build a Sustainable High Performance Safety Culture" (November 2010). She is senior vice president of Safety Solutions at Aubrey Daniels International, where she helps clients create behavior-based interventions that lead to a company-wide culture of safety. For more information, visit www.safebyaccident.com.
Establish whether the problem is truly a training problem. For that we recommend conducting Robert Mager and Peter Pipe’s “Can’t Do/Won’t Do” Test. If the performers couldn’t do a behavior or task if their lives depended on it, then it may be a training problem. In “can’t do” cases, giving performers an incentive, paying them more money, or threatening them with loss of their jobs will not solve the problem. The performer simply cannot do it.
If the performer(s) can do the behaviors if their life (lives) depended on it but don’t, it is a motivational problem—a problem of consequences. If employees have done the behavior in the past but no longer do it, it is still a problem of consequences. The problem could be lack of a reinforcer or, in some cases, satiation on past reinforcers. In our experience, most safety problems are a function of inadequate consequences. Only occasionally is training the problem.
If you find that the problem is a training problem, aim for fluency as the training outcome. Fluency means the performer can complete the task accurately and without hesitation. Too often, training involves a more seasoned employee showing a new employee “the ropes.” No action is required on the part of the learner. They just listen. If there are certain behaviors or procedures employees need to be able to do after training, then built-in deliberate practice is required.
Create a follow-up plan that includes evaluation of behavior change after the training. If performance has deteriorated, you either did not train to fluency, do not have an effective reinforcer, or have reinforced too infrequently. Revisit these elements and continue to do so until the desired level of safety is maintained.