The desired goal of any environmental, health and safety program is eliminating workplace incidents and near-misses. Some safety managers will focus on regulatory compliance with the goal of preventing legal liability for the employer, but since regulations are designed to prevent worker injury, both goals are the same: to create a workplace that provides a safe, healthy environment for workers.

The traditional recommended process for identifying past incidents and preventing future incidents is the incident investigation. It usually goes like this: An incident or near-miss takes place. Hopefully, any injuries are minor. The organization asks, “Why did this happen?” The safety manager or other responsible party tries to answer that question by conducting an incident investigation. He or she examines work processes, equipment, employee behavior and other factors. There’s usually a simple explanation. “Employee A slipped in a pool of hydraulic fluid on the shop floor, falling and breaking his coccyx. The hydraulic fluid was removed using a spill kit and disposed of in the proper manner. The problem is solved, and no one will break his/her coccyx in the shop again.” There may even be a root-cause analysis: “Employee C performed maintenance on a tractor in the shop. The tractor leaked hydraulic fluid, but Employee C did not notice the leak when she finished and removed the tractor.”

What does this situation tell us overall? Wouldn’t it be better if Employee A and Employee C both possessed the ability to recognize that there were hazards created by the tractor maintenance and take steps to prevent or remove those hazards? This is where competency-based training can help improve safety training outcomes.

What Is Competency-Based Training?

Competency-based training has its roots in the U.S. military. During World War II, the military needed to recruit soldiers and quickly train them to perform specific tasks. For example, soldiers needed to know how to break down, clean and reassemble their weapons. That task seems simple on its face, but there are several discrete steps they needed to master. These steps could be expressed as competency statements. For example, “The soldier will demonstrate the ability to properly disassemble an M1 Carbine rifle” is one competency. Then, “the soldier will demonstrate the ability to properly clean and oil the disassembled parts of an M1 Carbine rifle.” Finally, “the soldier will demonstrate the ability to properly reassemble the cleaned and oiled parts of an M1 Carbine rifle.”

After the war, U.S. industry began incorporating competency-based instructional systems design (ISD) into its employee training. Manufacturing and other industries with assembly line-style workflows found it especially useful. During this time, companies also began using competency-based training in other areas, including safety training. Competency-based ISD is now used across fields using different media. In-person training is still common, but e-learning and other modalities can make use of the competency-based approach.

How Can Competency-Based Training Improve Training Outcomes?

How could competency-based training have helped with the hydraulic fluid incident? Competency” implies that the learner has achieved a grasp of a subject beyond awareness. Slips, trips and falls training would tell your employees that unmarked hydraulic fluid on a concrete floor is bad housekeeping and will likely cause an incident. But more in-depth slips, trips and falls competencies, giving employees situational awareness in shop areas, may have prevented the incident. More likely, in-depth equipment maintenance competencies regarding the kinds of hazards that occur during maintenance may have helped prevent the incident in the first place.

But There’s More!

While competency-based training can provide a better baseline for employee safety thinking, it also provides safety managers a tool for connecting the dots among job roles, work processes, identified hazards and training.

Here’s another example: Welders work in defined areas doing defined tasks, such as flux cored arc welding (FCAW). FCAW exposes your welder to several hazards. You have done what you can with elimination and substitution (purchasing pre-welded materials when possible), engineering controls (proper ventilation) and administrative controls (a permit system). However, you cannot eliminate all hazards with engineering and administrative controls, so the welder will need personal protective equipment. This is where the competencies come in. To protect herself, the employee will need to be able to “demonstrate the ability to choose the correct OSHA minimum protective shade number required for flux cored arc welding.”

The list of competencies for the welder could become quite extensive. However, once you have identified the competencies, you can develop specific training to help ensure that all your welders have absorbed that information and demonstrated that they have mastered the necessary competencies.

How Is Competency Proven?

Proving that your employees have achieved competency can be challenging and depends on the task. For example, the National Fire Protection Association’s “Standard for Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents” contains highly specific competency statements, such as, “Given an MC-306/DOT-406 cargo tank and a dome cover clamp, demonstrate the ability to install the clamp on the dome properly.” This type of competency has high stakes associated with it, so verifying the competency requires that a qualified person watches someone do the task and verifies that he or she is competent to perform it.

Most safety training tasks will not require this kind of rigor, but they do often require going beyond the standard multiple-choice or true/false quiz. For in-person training, when it is feasible, watching each learner demonstrate competence is always best. Alternatively, some e-learning solutions use interactive activities to accomplish the same goal. For example, learners could choose the correct shade number through a “drag and drop” or sorting exercise. In many instances, this approach is most efficient, since e-learning provides a record of the learner proving competency at that time.

Finally, Improving Outcomes

Once you have mapped hazards to each employee role, established competencies to help those roles avoid the defined hazards and created training to help the employees in those roles achieve those competencies, the hardest part of the process is complete. You should see a reduction, and hopefully an elimination, of incidents. If and when incidents do occur, you can compare them with your hazards, roles, competencies and training. If the incident was caused by a new, undefined hazard, then you can connect the hazard to a role and competency, which you can then add to the existing training. Hypothetically, this process of continual improvement should yield fewer and less severe incidents over time and improve the safety culture overall.