Ensuring the Effectiveness of Employee Safety Training

Learning blocks education

“Space apart every 6 feet, now let’s repeat…” might be a good way to teach elementary school children a lesson in social (physical) distancing. But employees as adult learners need more than a recitation and a gold star on their forehead to understand the application of this infection control measure during the current pandemic. The presence of the coronavirus as a potential workplace hazard requires employers to provide safety training on the threat of COVID-19 and the means to mitigate it. In order to ensure the effectiveness of this training and for other safety-related topics as well, the principles of adult learning should be incorporated into the safety education process. 

The adult educator, Malcolm Knowles, made use of the term “andragogy” in forming his theory of adult learning. Andragogy literally means “leading man”. Knowles’ theory is based on the following assumptions of adult learning motivation.

  1. Need to know: Adults want to know the rationale behind learning something and how it relates to them or their job. Specifying learning objectives at the start of a safety training module can serve to define the “what’s in it for me” or WIIFM. In the case of training on COVID-19, the overall goal of learning outcomes is fairly obvious – minimizing the potential for contracting the life-threatening illness.
  2. Foundation: Adults have vast experience which they can draw on and reflect upon during the learning process. In a classroom setting, inviting input on life experiences and even mistakes or lessons learned from the school of hard knocks can enrich the training experience for others. In an e-Learning format, citing specific real-world experiences can help demonstrate how the information is relevant.
  3. Self-concept: Adults are self-directed and appreciate having input and control over the subject matter without being spoon-fed. In a PowerPoint training format, rather than fill slides with a ton of text, bulletize key points, add bold graphics, and incorporate reference links (such as CDC, OSHA, and WHO) that can provide some autonomy for the learner to promote further discovery.
  4. Readiness: Adults want training to be relevant and task oriented. Providing a practicum on how to properly don and doff PPE such as disposable gloves in order to prevent cross-contamination can serve to reinforce a specific infection control learning objective.
  5. Orientation: Adults tend to be problem solvers so training material should clearly identify the problem by posing realistic questions that allow the learner to consider alternatives in deciding on the best solution. Can an engineering control be implemented for a hazard that will provide more effective safeguarding than using an administrative control or personal protective equipment?
  6. Motivation: Adults are self-motivated and are more apt to learn when they see the value in acquiring knowledge. Employees tend to be more engaged in safety training when they have options and are not up against a deadline or commitment. Aside from annually required compliance training, online training that offers self-pacing and more flexibility can help to enhance employee motivation.

MEMIC’s Director of Organizational Development & Training, Kathleen Kerr, summarizes four learning strategies that align with Knowles’ theory which she states, “support the idea that in order to ensure the effectiveness of the training it is wise to first understand the learner’s perspective and what will pique and hold their interest, but more importantly, understand what the training is asking them to do. Training is only as good as it instructs and inspires the learner to apply what they learn.” These learning strategies are:

Strategy 1: Address Employees’ Intrinsic Motivations – Before starting to train, it is important to tie its purpose to what we hope to achieve. Using the phrase “For what Purpose” instead of answering the question of “Why” suggests value versus justification, and ties back to the goals people strive for – spell out the WIIFM and connect it to a larger purpose. Create something people can aspire to rather than adhere to because of some rule.

Understanding the learner’s perspective, both what they can offer and what motivates them, can help us determine the best way to communicate the information. Intrinsic motivation comes from within and with stronger bonds to commitment. It is deeper than external consequences. Motivation to change is more a response to moving away from a threat than it is moving toward a reward. When communicating reasons to learn new ways of doing things, speak to how to avoid losing that which we value.

Strategy 2: Move Employees to Become More Self-Directed – Respect the experience employees (adult learners) bring and the knowledge they have. Lean on them to produce ways to implement new regulations or learn the science behind a new rule or recommendation. Encourage high performing employees to collaborate and support developing employees as they learn to self-direct their learning. Create avenues for employees to ground themselves in what intrinsically motivates them.

Strategy 3: Equip Managers to Be the First line of Learning Defense – Many front-line managers are the first people employees turn to for instruction and guidance. Create readiness within the organization by first ensuring that managers have the knowledge to support an employee’s self-direction and learning motivation.

Strategy 4: Measure the impact that Learning Strategies have in the organization & Celebrate – In addition to meeting regulatory requirements to show compliance and completion, we need to figure out the steps needed to measure the efforts along the way that get us to the final goal. We can celebrate progress, which inspires and motivates continued efforts, reminds employees they matter and affect outcomes, but most importantly, that we are all in this together.

Finally, from a safety audit standpoint, proof of training competency and verification of training are critical components of an employee safety education and training program. Documentation of safety training need not be fancy; it just needs to exist and be readily available.

As we explore uncharted territory in the reentry of the “sleeping” workplace and continue modification of the essential workspace, it is critically important to ensure the effectiveness of training to help see us through safely.                               


  1. https://ohsonline.com/Articles/2015/07/01/Adult-Learning-Principles-for-Safety-Training.aspx?Page=4
  2. https://www.ispringsolutions.com/blog/what-does-malcolm-knowles-know-about-adult-learning-theory
  3. https://www.newrow.com/7-adult-learning-principles-every-online-educator-should-know/