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Education methods of all kinds have evolved over time, but the Internet age has changed it in unprecedented ways. E-learning has made it convenient for students to study courses from any location, needing little more than a desktop or laptop with web access. Workplace safety training has followed this lead, and today, it is far from unusual for employers and workers in all kinds of industries to learn about occupational safety via computer screens.

Don Sayers & Associates, a Fredericton-based workplace safety-training company that specializes in the oil and gas, mining, forestry, transportation and healthcare sectors, is a pioneer in the e-learning revolution. Founder Don Sayers remembers a very different era, less than two decades ago, when online safety training was virtually unheard of.

“Around the year 2000, e-learning was just in its infancy and it had just begun to emerge,” Sayers says. “A colleague of mine worked at a local university, and he said, ‘Think about it.’”

There wasn’t a lot of information out there about online safety training at the time, Sayers recalls, but that did not discourage him and his colleague. “We did some research, began to realize that although it’s a lot more expensive to create a good e-learning program — emphasis on ‘good’ — than face-to-face, it is imminently scalable.” So Sayers created what’s known as an “e-synchronous” learning environment, which means that the timing is infinitely flexible.

“Students can enter it at any time, day or night, begin the program, do it on their own time and leave at their own time,” explains Sayers. “And we were the first, actually, in the world to do that.”

Don Hoddinott, director of business development with YOW Canada in Ottawa, agrees that 24/7 access is a huge advantage of online safety training. In addition, he says, tracking capabilities can ensure that workers make progress. “Employers can rest assured that each employee has received the same subject matter,” he adds, “and certificates are emailed immediately following successful completion of the course.”

YOW, which has logged decades in the business of workplace safety training, has also made the transition to e-learning. Among the company’s specialties are WHMIS, transportation of dangerous goods, working at heights, fall protection, violence and harassment and work in confined spaces.

When an employer is deciding what online training service to use, it’s important to consider the credentials of every potential provider. One should inquire about the company’s occupational health and safety knowledge, reputation, length of time in business and suitability for the workers’ needs. An employer should also determine whether generic or specialized content is needed.

“Employers need to do their homework,” advises Hoddinott. “Research and evaluate a few different online courses. They need to consider the content, audio, animations, illustrations.” It is also helpful to find out if the course issues a certificate, includes interactive exercises to test the worker’s knowledge and ends with an assessment test, he adds. “Talk to other companies who have used the training provider in the past and get some insight on the course.”

In a class of your own

Another advantage of an e-synchronous learning environment is that the student can set his or her own pace. This is not typical of a classroom or office learning environment, in which all students meet together at a specific time and place and the instruction moves at a single pace for all. With e-learning, there is no need to remove multiple employees from work to train them simultaneously, and everybody saves on travelling costs.

“The vast majority of our students are working adults. The option for them of attending a physical campus is not on. It just can’t be done,” says Sayers. “This is much better. On his own time, he logs in, does his work; when he’s tired, he runs off and goes home, and goes to bed or whatever. So that was the design criteria for us.”

But despite the growth of the e-learning industry, traditional group environments for education are not going away anytime soon, according to Hoddinott.

“Teacher-to-student training is and will always be preferred by some,” he says, citing the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s working-at-heights training program for the construction sector as an example of blended learning. “Written into the regulations is the fact that workers can have safety training that is a combination of both ‘online training’ and ‘in-class training’,” he says about the Ministry’s program.

Although online training and education have evolved significantly over the past 10 years, they are not without a few small disadvantages. “Some health and safety training needs to have ‘site-specific’ or ‘company-specific’ components. Online training has a challenge in delivering these components,” admits Hoddinott. And there are still some people and entities that do not consider e-learning to carry the same weight and credibility as traditional training, he adds: “Today, you can get a ‘university degree’ online, but the sad fact is, that degree will only be partially recognized by many employers.”

As convenient as e-learning is, not every service is created alike, and it is up to the employer to evaluate prospective safety-training programs to ensure that they meet legislative requirements. “Only a well-trained consultant or health and safety representative can determine this,” says Hoddinott.

But most important is that the e-learning service can succeed at making employees effective safety workers, according to Sayers.

“Health and safety is a profession,” he says. “Most of the people in the field have difficulty walking and chewing gum simultaneously.” This led his company to devise a basic program of safety-process skills, focusing more on risk mitigation than on regulations. “If you do that, you’ll get a safe workplace.”

Hoddinott stresses that cost should not be an important factor in selecting a course, as those with reduced prices tend to offer lower-quality results that “will likely pale in comparison to a properly developed training course which encompasses good quality, audio, illustrations, animations and interactive exercises.” Most legitimate training providers offer a complimentary demo to let the employer decide, he adds.

Times change, and so do methods of training people to work safely. E-learning has changed the face of education, and it appears to be here to stay.

Jeff Cottrill is the editor of Canadian Occupational Health & Safety News.