Competency-based training is a training method that aligns content to the behaviors required of individual job roles – in other words, competencies. This method can be especially beneficial for environmental, health and safety (EHS) training, as it focuses content only on what employees need to know and reduces time away from the job. Its relevancy adds context, which increases engagement and buy-in.

Michael Robertson, director of instructional systems design and project management at SafetySkills, says that this buy-in is especially important in EHS training: “Putting on a hard hat is not a difficult thing that requires in-depth training. However, getting someone who is not inclined to wear a hard hat to understand why it’s so important and embrace that piece of protective gear can be difficult.” As an example, Robertson says PriceSmart, a grocery chain with stores in Central America, Colombia and the Caribbean, used online safety training to reduce training time while reducing accidents by 18 percent and lost workdays by 23 percent.

Competency-based training also aligns with regulatory requirements, since many agencies require that organizations be able to prove that employees are using safe behaviors rather than just participating in training. These agencies often determine compliance based on employee interviews, incident logs and observations, rather than relying on training attendance records. The consequences are significant; if an employee isn’t able to demonstrate competence in the required EHS skills, an agency can find the employer in violation of the law.

Defining the Competencies

Identifying competencies and developing training around them is not a one-time activity but an ongoing process based on job safety analyses and government regulations. Start by identifying job hazards associated with a particular role. Connect the hazards with protective skills, and then identify what employees in that role need to learn in order to successfully demonstrate that skill. The goal, says Robertson, is to be able to say, “People with this job title are exposed to these hazards and must take these protective measures. Therefore, they need this set of training so they can properly follow EHS policies designed to protect them.”

Competencies can also be defined around regulations. In the U.S., for example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has developed standards and defined training requirements for topics such as personal protective equipment and hazard communication (HazCom).

“We live in a world of big data,” says Art Liggio, president and CEO of Driving Dynamics, and employers can use that data to identify their biggest safety problems – which need the most immediate training. Thoughtfully identify which metrics are the most valuable to your business, and “create a system that can analyze supporting data in real time.”

The key to developing this system, Liggio adds, is involving stakeholders at all levels – executives and managers but also employees at other levels who “have demonstrated a commitment to safety.” Doing so will create “a culture of safety” that will increase participation and engagement.

Similarly, when executives determine business goals for departments across the organization, they need to involve the safety team to determine if additional safety training is needed as well as how the goals will impact the safety of their employees. For example, Liggio says, a pharmaceutical company decided to increase the number of in-person calls their reps were required to make each day. At the end of the first year, however, their car crash rate had increased by 27 percent. With an average cost of $14,700, this safety problem outweighed the profit the company was earning from the increased calls, so leaders decided to reverse their decision. The result, Liggio says, was “a better bottom line” as well as safer sales staff.

Developing Competency-Based EHS Training

Robertson says it’s important to take the time to develop an effective, well-thought-out competency-based safety training approach. “It takes time to develop processes that will produce consistently effective training, and it takes a bit of experimenting to hit the right balance of information and presentation.”

Liggio says his company’s “behavioral based” training focuses on providing a learning path that helps employees “recognize how their own personal habits and attitudes may be putting them at risk.” This approach, he says, “produces much more powerful, long-lasting results,” because employees are more open to long-term change that they’ve thought about themselves rather than had handed to them.

Regarding the use of technology, Robertson says “including technology for the ‘cool’ factor is, in my opinion, a bad idea.” At best, it uses additional resources but doesn’t improve engagement or effectiveness. At worst, it can “result in messy, ineffective training.” He believes gamification has been overhyped and that the best use of technology is to make e-learning courses more reliable and accessible across devices. “These kinds of technological improvements don’t typically have a lot of ‘wow’ factor,” he says, “but they will help our learners access and absorb their training more effectively.”

Measuring the Impact of Competency-Based Training

Measuring EHS training’s effectiveness can be as simple as comparing the number of safety incidents, injuries and lost work days before and after training. However, it’s also important to measure employee morale, Robertson says. “When a company sincerely cares about its workers, and invests resources to protect them, employees respond.” Companies can assess morale with measures like turnover, productivity and corporate reputation.

Importantly, assessments should require demonstration of full mastery rather than specifying a certain percentage of correct answers to pass. This approach, as a SafetySkills blog post points out, “can work in scholastic fields … but what if an employee only knew how to interact with 70% of the chemicals in his or her workplace?” It could be disastrous.

EHS training is critical. However, it’s more than checking a box and sending paperwork to the government. By identifying the competencies required to successfully and safely carry out job responsibilities, organizations can improve engagement and productivity while keeping workers safe.

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