OHS Canada Magazine

Understanding the training dilemma

Considering strategies for better safety outcomes


Knowledge, application and competency reside in different parts of the brain. Forklift training is a great example. (wavebreak3/Adobe Stock)

As a safety professional, have you ever faced resistance from management when you’ve proposed employee safety training initiatives? 

Chances are you’ve heard responses like: “We don’t have the time;” “We don’t have the budget;” or “I need you to condense that eight-hour training class into three hours.”

The fact is training is costly. Let’s take for example a business paying their employees $35 in wage and benefit costs, and billing out $100 per hour for the services provided by those employees.

For a business that has 50 employees to train — factoring only the cost of wages and the opportunity cost of not being able to bill out for services rendered — the cost to the employer is $54,000 per day of training. Five days of training per year and that’s $270,000. 

Consider the ‘forgetting curve’

On top of the cost objection, according to research, up to 90 per cent of training is forgotten within seven days. 

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The “forgetting curve” was hypothesized and tested by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. His research showed that when people first learn something, it disappears at an exponential rate.

In fact, most learning is lost in the first couple of days.

However, if we understand how learning occurs, then we can do something about the forgetting curve and demonstrate to management with confidence how they can deliver safety training that produces a return on investment.

The missing link in safety management

A key reason for the forgetting curve is that three parts of the brain are involved in learning retention and competency, and most training only engages one part of the brain — and at best two.

Knowledge, application and competency reside in different parts of the brain.

Knowledge: Lets take forklift training, for example. When workers sit through the lecture, watch the videos, or read the safe work procedure on how to operate a forklift, neurons fire in the neocortex of the brain to log the new information by making new synaptic connections.

The neocortex is the seat of our conscious awareness and where we store information.

In 2000, Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel found that if information is not reviewed or applied, the new circuits formed in the neocortex prune apart within hours or days. As the saying goes: “If you don’t use it, you lose it!” 

Application:  As they review their workbooks and watch the videos about how to operate the forklift, workers might be thinking “Hey, I’ve got this… This looks easy!”

However, out in the parking lot when its time to apply what they have just intellectually learned, they find out that it’s actually not that easy. The forklift jerks forward, hydraulics go up when they were meant to go down, and the pallet gets dropped.

The reason for difficulty is because “doing” or application resides in a different part of the brain — the limbic brain. The application of the new knowledge (or experience) causes jungles of neurons to organize into networks and the brain makes a chemical that activates the limbic brain to releases neuropeptides.

Now the workers are beginning to chemically instruct and emotionally teach their body what the mind has intellectually understood. So, knowledge is for the mind (neocortex), but application or experience is for the body (limbic brain).

Competency: After a few weeks or months, the workers are so skilled at operating the forklift that they don’t have to consciously think about what they are doing.

They can even be talking to another worker in the area all while scooping and setting a pallet perfectly. They have applied the knowledge enough times, so that now they no longer have to consciously think about it. 

When workers have repeated something over and over, it causes neural networks in the cerebellum, the storehouse of implicit (non-declarative) memory, to become highly enriched. Now, their body as the unconscious mind is operating the forklift, and neurochemically, mind and body have become as one.

So, if learning is making new synaptic connections in the brain, then remembering is maintaining and sustaining those connections.

Competency, then, is neuroconnections fired and wired through repeated application so that the worker can perform the task skillfully with their body as the unconscious mind — just like tying our shoelace.

When we understand how the brain and body learn, we have a better understanding why the learning pyramid estimates retention at five to 10 per cent with lecture or reading alone.

Rethinking training through COVID-19

Tips for better training outcomes

Make it meaningful:  People are more likely to pay attention and retain information when they are interested in the content, and they understand how it practically applies to them. 

Make it interactive: The more participants interact with the content, the more the brain has to fire and wire, and the better the learning and retention. For example, if people can turn to the person next to them end explain what they just learned, they are building a model of
understanding. 

Promote critical thinking: Build case studies and scenarios into your training program. As people apply what they have just learned immediately, the brain starts firing in new patterns, sequences, and combinations and the new neurosynaptic connections being formed are more likely to stick. Moreover, questions hook the brain, making people think. This then causes more neurons to fire and wire to promote learning and retention.

Deliver content in micro-courses:  Instead of a full-day training program, consider breaking it down into three sessions of two hours each. Learning drops off significantly and even stops when people feel overloaded or overwhelmed.

Include application right away: Make sure people apply what they are learning. Remember that “experience” resides in a completely different part of the brain. For example, have students create the WHMIS workplace label, physically set up the ladder, practise running to get the AED and calling for help.

Test for understanding: Whether it’s a written test or a competency checklist — or both — it’s  another way for the knowledge to be applied. It also measures the level of learning and provides a record for your company’s due diligence.

Revisit the material often: Send an email, hold a safety talk, and host short refresher courses often, so that the brain fires and wires into a long-lasting connection.

In summary, every year, organizations invest billions in performance-based training that fails to produce the desired results.

Why? A primary reason is the inability to produce the sustained change required to have a lasting impact on human
behaviour.

True and lasting change requires becoming aware of how the brain works and creating deep-seeded habits and beliefs that rest mostly in the unconscious mind.

Next time management pushes back on allocating safety training time or dollars, share your understanding of how learning occurs to help assure them why and how they’re going to get a return on their investment.

And when you’re asked to cram eight hours of training into three, explain to management why it’s time and money down the drain.

Simply put, workers are not even going to have a chance to learn.

Theo Heineman, CRSP, CHSC, is a certified NeuroChangeSolutions consultant in Winnipeg.

This Neurosafety column appears in the March/April 2021 issue of OHS Canada.


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