Safety training is evolving beyond the toolbox talk.
While job-site discussions continue to be a useful way for safety management personnel to check in with workers, there’s a new generation of digitally fluent leaders who are harnessing the potential of tech to mitigate workplace risks. These entrepreneurial safety professionals aren’t saying “out with the old and in with the new.” Instead, they’re finding new ways to express what people in their profession have known for years: Effective training processes are multifaceted, ongoing and inextricably tied to culture.
“E-learning used to mean watching a video or speaker with a slide presentation,” says Jaime Ingalls, D.A., M.P.H., concept development representative for the Ferro City Platform at Ferro Productions. “Then, what we think of now as traditional e-learning management systems came along and changed everything.”
With the arrival of e-learning management systems, learners were able to absorb information at their own pace from anywhere using computers or other mobile devices. Instructors were able to easily track the progress of everyone in a given course and identify new opportunities for education. The downside? It was difficult for safety professionals to customize their e-learning management systems without paying incrementally more for each product tier.
In 2017, Ingalls began working for the New York City-based multimedia production company Ferro Productions. Focused on entertaining the largest audience possible, they were developing an algorithm that could assess the needs of individuals and indicate how best to reach them with video content. This project – and an inspiring conversation with one of Ingalls’ students in the occupational safety studies program at Keene State College, where she was also working at the time – got her thinking about how this technology could be used to improve workplace safety.
“The people working on this project weren’t interested in releasing information for its own sake or to comply with a set of rules,” she says. “They wanted to create quality shows that many different kinds of people wanted to watch, and they did that by developing a responsive digital environment.”
Ingalls started imagining a world in which workers not only had to participate in training sessions by law, but were enthusiastic about learning from each other using tools that helped make space for education in their busy lives. She thought that a “digital city,” utilized for safety education, could help address the three primary weaknesses she saw again and again in the industry:
1. Courses Are Designed for Compliance, Not Improvement
It is common for organizations to take a “one and done” approach to worker safety and health, Ingalls says. Many look for the least expensive option that will meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, implement that option and call it a day.
“People don’t always realize that an upfront investment in the development of an effective training system can save money long term, increase productivity and enrich workers’ lives,” she continues. “It’s about establishing a positive safety culture, where teams are empowered to reduce risks and make lasting improvements.”
2. Training Materials Created for Everyone Don’t Work for Anyone
Using generic training materials is one of the quickest ways to cause worker complacency and boredom, according to Ingalls. It’s a clear sign to trainees that their organization has not considered their experiences or workplace requirements.
“Parents see this dynamic in action all the time,” she says. “If you keep doing the same things to teach kids about math or reading or a game, they just check out and tell you, ‘Oh, I already know how to do this.’ You don’t get the connection you want, and they don’t have an incentive to continue learning and growing.”
3. Safety Programs Are Under-Resourced and Pushed to Their Limits
Budgetary constraints can create ambivalence. When organizations have limited funds set aside for training workers, testing new techniques and spending on new software might seem like an unnecessary luxury. However, Ingalls says, because internet-enabled devices are so pervasive and digital tools provide access to expert trainers without travel-related expenses, a digital-city-style e-learning system might be more accessible than you think.
“I thought, if we could enable and optimize distance learning using technology, we could bridge the miles between learners and educators in just a few seconds,” she adds. “And who wouldn’t want to save money using tools that feel like real-world teleportation?”
Ingalls and her team at Ferro Productions went on to develop their city-style e-learning platform with safety in mind, and began working with clients to create unique virtual communities. They use company-specific information, and format their cities to help organizations ensure that their safety programs can stand the test of time.
“We create a digital city on company servers where employees can access resources,” she says. “Just like a real city, there are different districts that provide custom information, whether it’s a body of knowledge that’s unique to the company, a networking area where employees can talk or a place for educational development.”
Each time she goes through the process with a new client, Ingalls says she thinks about the importance of storytelling in the safety profession. It’s surprising that as safety professionals move into the future, using new tech and digital communication systems, this ancient practice continues to function in much the same way it always has. She believes this has more to do with emotion than methodology.
After all, Ingalls says, storytelling is all about connecting with others through shared experiences. This idea has gained popularity among safety trainers over the past few decades, but it wasn’t until much more recently that safety professionals started realizing the importance of making storytelling a two-way street.
“Trainers who share their stories with workers need to make sure that they’re listening to the workers’ stories as well,” she continues. “We thought about that a lot as we developed the digital-city system – considering every person within an organization, giving them space to share what they want to share and utilizing their feedback and experiences to improve. That’s how you achieve the next level of education.”
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