Does safety training work? It sure does. But that’s not the interesting question. Does the type of training matter? Now things are starting to get a bit more interesting. The answer to this second question has important implications for both safety as well as the all-mighty dollar. Are training methods that are highly engaging worth the time and resources they consume? Or should companies take advantage of economies of scale by letting their employees suffer through poorly made safety videos or e-tutorials? Previous reviews on this question provide mixed results. While one paper found evidence that engaging training methods had a much stronger impact in comparison to less engaging methods (Burke et al., 2006), another paper found little evidence for a difference (Robson et al., 2012).
Now what question is typically elicited when faced with mixed results? It depends – figuratively speaking. We add to the second question above to make it a bit more interesting: Under what conditions does the type of safety training matter? This is the question that Burke and colleagues answer effectively in their paper The Dread Factor: How Hazards and Safety Training Influence Learning and Performance (2011).
In this paper, Burke and colleagues readdress the importance of engagement. However, this time they also provide an interesting boundary condition to the relative importance of engagement. This is the “realization of the dangers in the work context and associated negative affect” (p. 49) – otherwise known as dread. The rationale underlying dread as an important feature to consider in safety training has roots in learning through social construction. A person comes to understand one’s work context and the risks it entails through communication and social interaction with others already engrained in this context. If there are few hazards in the work context, then the necessity to communicate these risks in such a way as to shape what people perceive to be risks will be less important. In other words, pre-conceived notions of risk will require less implicit knowledge that can only be shared through interacting with others.
Burke and colleagues maintained that more engaging training methods will still be more important to acquisition of safety knowledge and safety performance. However, they also proposed that under hazardous work conditions, highly engaged training will show stronger training effects on the outcomes. Burke and colleagues then set out to conduct a meta-analysis of all the research conducted on this topic to date.
So, what did they find?
First, to cautiously reiterate, safety training matters! No matter the engagement, safety training has important implications towards the acquisition of safety knowledge and exhibition of safety performance. Second, highly engaging methods of safety training showed much better outcomes for both the acquisition of safety knowledge, as well as better safety performance. Third, and most importantly, the level of hazard had a conditional effect on both outcomes. When hazards were high, engaging methods were by far more important than less engaging methods. On the other hand, when hazards were low, there was actually no statistically significant difference between the method of training and the outcomes.
So, what are the implications? Investing more into engaging methods of training is well worth it if you operate in hazardous conditions or if the job entails relatively higher levels of hazards to employee safety. Meanwhile, for less hazardous jobs, it may not be necessary to invest as much resources into more engaging methods of training – at least in predicting safety performance and safety knowledge. However, keep in mind that there may be other consequences to support the idea of emphasizing more engaging methods of training – even if it is to make something as important as safety a little less boring.
Burke, M. J., Salvador, R. O., Smith-Crowe, K., Chan-Serafin, S., Smith, A., & Sonesh, S. (2011). The dread factor: How hazards and safety training influence learning and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(1), 46-70.
Burke, M. J., Sarpy, S. A., Smith-Crowe, K., Chan-Serafin, S., Salvador, R. O., & Islam, G. (2006). Relative effectiveness of worker safety and health training methods. American Journal of Public Health, 96(2), 315-324.
Robson, L. S., Stephenson, C. M., Schulte, P. A., Amick III, B. C., Irvin, E. L., Eggerth, D. E., … & Peters, R. H. (2012). A systematic review of the effectiveness of occupational health and safety training. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 193-208.