According to the 2007 learning and development survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD), little has been changed in the methods selected by company trainers. The focus remains on the use of trainer-centered delivery, greater reliance on line supervisors and on-the-job training. In addition, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has taken a new look at toolbox talks and the use of storytelling as the most effective means of safety training

The CIPD survey has indicated that 39 percent of the respondents felt that on-the-job training was the most effective method. Twenty-one of the respondents identified formal training sessions as the most effective. Although companies have predicted they will increase the use of interactive CD and online training, only 2 percent of respondents voted for e-learning to be an effective method of presentation. As for the methods that have been actually used in 2007, on-the-job training appears to take the lead with 81 percent of respondents stating they frequently use this method.

Faced with these figures, it’s no wonder NIOSH took a closer look at methods to improve toolbox talks. These 10-to-15-minute weekly safety training sessions have long been a preferred on-the-job safety training method for the construction industry. They are easily delivered at the work site by a supervisor, foreman or senior employee. The concern, of course, is the quality, quantity and effectiveness of the materials used.

In 2002, NIOSH began doing research on the impact of using narrative case studies in toolbox talks for construction. The participants of the study included electricians, carpenters and laborers with four to 38 years of experience. Toolbox talks were drafted with and without a story or narrative. Data was collected from focus groups through interviews and from observations of the training sessions. NIOSH sought feedback from both instructors and employees.

From this research, it became clear that existing toolbox talks did not meet the needs of employers or instructors. Instructors indicated they did not have time for pretraining preparation. They often were uncomfortable with presenting the materials and felt employees did not pay attention to the information provided in typical toolbox talks. The employees thought the talks were of little use to them. They did not find the information interesting and wanted instructors to get to the point more quickly.

NIOSH evaluated these concerns and revised their talks accordingly. The edited talks more often included real-life stories. These stories reflected incidents in the employees’ geographical area, and they were found to be more interesting and useful to the employees. NIOSH incorporated discussion questions that pertained to the story and increased employee participation and interest. These questions were presented immediately after the story. The safety topics targeted work that was to be done at the site. The talks did not include unnecessary details, just the needed facts, and the text was presented in simple language and meant to be read verbatim. Additional information for the instructor was provided separately as bulleted items. Pictures were included where appropriate.

The findings of the study revealed case studies were effective. Employees reported that the real-life stories got and held their attention. The stories made the information easier for them to understand and remember. Both employees and the instructors reported they could relate to the person in the story. Overall, the case studies were able to enhance employee participation and interest, increase retention of safety facts and help to enhance worker attitudes toward safety.

To understand why these case studies are more effective and help to ensure narrative toolbox talks are used correctly, an appreciation for the adult learner is necessary. Employers also must be aware of the impact of the so-called “occupational culture.” This collective mindset can be a powerful force. Adults choose to learn or not to learn. The occupational culture directs what learning and/or training is acceptable.

The basic motivations inherent in adult learners are:

  • They must believe they will be successful. This belief affects their motivation.

  • The adult learner must deem the training as valuable. Training for adults is most effective when the adult learner is ready to learn and is interested in what is to be learned.

  • They must know why they need to learn something and how it relates to their daily life.

  • The learner has to be self-directed.

  • The content presented needs to be related to a prior experience and associated with a current problem.

  • The adult learner is looking for the training as a solution.

Many studies have shown adult learners learn best by having their own experiences, reflecting on them and incorporating them into the new information. They can learn by reflecting upon the experiences of others. This is the concept behind the NIOSH study on toolbox talk narratives. The narrative offers a hazardous work experience by someone in the same industry and illustrates how to more safely handle the situation.

A key element to the success of the narrative is the ability of the workers to relate to the individual in the case study. The stronger the connection between the shared experienced and the individual, the more significant the learning outcome. This rests in the “occupational culture.” Workers engaged in the same type of work and the same dangerous tasks tend to develop a sense of fraternity. The recognition of the groups’ danger heightens the contrast between them and the safer work of others. Dealing with the danger or determining what action should be taken to protect oneself comes from observing the actions of those who share the same experiences—fellow workers in the industry.

Trying to change one’s behavior in a group is a matter of getting the “buy-in.” The safety trainer must identify the internal control switch in each individual that responds to why they should care about the presented information. The most obvious, direct answer to this question is that it may save their life some day. The key is to get them to believe this.

Stories or narratives affect each person differently, but everyone will be able to reflect on them. Hopefully, they gain new insights with a positive outcome presented by the instructor. First and foremost, they offer a way to learn through the experiences of others. They engage the mind and create an environment of trust between the instructor and workers. Bonding occurs among those who hear them. They have the ability to defuse conflict and empower the speaker. A great deal of information is encoded in a story. Beliefs and attitudes and the problems or benefits associated with them are indirectly expressed through the telling of the story.

Hopefully, the lessons learned on using narratives or stories will be applied to the materials being converted or developed for the Spanish-speaking worker as well, as it is our most effective tool in safety training.   EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@intecweb.com.