Safety training is a fact of life for employers. It is essential for several reasons: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandates it, and more importantly, offering safety training is the right thing to do. Therefore, employers might as well put in the effort and do it in a manner that best benefits their employees. One way to do this is to realize that, when training your employees, you are dealing with adult learners. This fact is a “no-brainer” but can be very important when putting together a company’s education program.

There are obvious differences between adult and child learners. First, adults are more knowledgeable and experienced. Knowing this can help formulate an effective hook to catch the adult learner. By including them in the teaching process as resources for real-life examples, the adult learner will feel more invested in the training. Another difference is that adults demand a higher level of respect. Techniques used to get children to cooperate and pay attention may be very insulting to an adult learner.

To improve the efficacy of your education programs, it can be helpful to become familiar with Malcolm Knowles and his Five Principles for Teaching Adults.

1 Ensure your adult students understand why what you are teaching is important. Children often do not require an explanation of why a lesson may be important. Adults almost always do. Your students may have to attend a training session, but attendance is sometimes the only requirement. By gearing the material to explain how the employee will benefit, employees will be more invested, and the experience will be much more rewarding.

2 Respect the students’ different learning styles. There are three accepted learning styles:

• Visual—These learners rely on pictures, graphs and diagrams. The best way to present material to them is to provide handouts, do a demonstration or use a white board.
• Auditory—These students learn best by hearing the information presented. They get a lot out of participating in discussions about the topic at hand.
• Kinesthetic—This group is best described as hands-on learners. By trying out the information as they learn it, retention comes more easily.

In every training session, there will be attendees with different learning styles. Using a bit of all three styles in a presentation will better engage all learners.

3 Allow your students to experience what they’re learning. Experience can take many forms. Any activity that gets the students involved in the learning process is experiential. It can be a discussion, a demonstration, even role playing. Another layer to this principle is to honor and include the life experiences and insight the adult learner brings to the table. In safety training, it can be helpful to have class members share their experiences of near-misses or accidents. This shows those with less experience that job site-related injuries and fatalities are real and not just a training-session scare tactic.

4 You can lead a horse to water … : Applied to training, this simply means that if a student isn’t ready for (or interested in) learning, it doesn’t matter what methods the teachers employ. This is where those teaching adult learners have to be flexible. Situations will arise that lend themselves to teaching a topic at a time that may not be on the schedule, perhaps when a student asks an off-topic question. If addressed then and there, you’ve capitalized on the student’s interest. If you wait for it to show up on the schedule, you may have lost his or her interest.

5 Encourage the adult learner. Many of the folks in a training session may not have been in an educational setting for quite some time, which may be intimidating for them. With time away from the classroom, intimidation and older brains factor together, and answers may come more slowly. Those teaching adults need patience. It often takes a lot of courage to participate in a class. Even small contributions should be encouraged. But remember, you’re dealing with adults. They’ll be able to see through false encouragement, which can potentially do more harm than no encouragement. Remember that a little goes a long way.
Teaching adults has its challenges, but by working to their strengths, challenges can be minimized. Appealing to what makes adult learners tick can increase the effectiveness of a training session.


KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and dkelly@intecweb.com. Joe O’Connor edited this article.