The dread factor: How hazards and safety training influence learning and performance

This meta-analysis evaluated the available literature on links between safety training and workplace hazards on the development of safety knowledge and performance.

Specifically, they explored how training engagement impacts knowledge and performance and how risk severity impacts the relationship. 113 studies were included.

Providing background, they note:

·        In the case of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, killing 29 miners, the mine was cited by OSHA for a large number of violations. Internal process indicated that training will be active via hands-on and demonstrated training for the use, care and maintenance of rescue & respiratory devices. In contrast, training for new miners on roof control and ventilation plans were via passive training, e.g. lectures and visual aids.

·        Previous work highlighted how safety training methodology impacts trainee knowledge & performance, with more engaging methods being more effective (although a previous meta-analysis disputed this finding).

·        In theory, active & engaging methods of training for rescue gear could be expected to be more effective than the passive training for roof control & ventilation, despite, in hindsight, most repeated OSHA violations being cited towards roof control and ventilation plans.

·        They provide a quick overview of risk literature. Perceptions of risk are said to “almost always” include some assessment of likelihood and seriousness of harm or injury potential. On this, people generally have trouble judging and interpreting probabilities, e.g. what’s been called “real risk” or “statistical risk” [** don’t read into the word “real” too much – it’s often used in quotation marks for a reason.]

·        In any case, a lot of previous work has found that “perceptions of risk are more informative than objective indicators of risk in the prediction of behavioral outcomes” (p47).

·        They also note observed subgroup differences in risk perceptions across genders, supervisors vs line workers, and among national/cultural groups of workers within the same occupation. This “demonstrates that the social construction of risk beliefs are context bound” (p47) .

·        More engaging means of training would be expected to “force trainees to infer causal and conditional relations between events and actions”, influencing how trainees think and act and particularly in novel situations.

·        Prior research has highlighted how “relative effectiveness of safety and health training methods according to the extent to which trainees participated in the learning process”.

·        They cover the important topic of ‘dread’. Dread covers situations when hazardous events are perceived to be of “a ominous nature”, like nuclear, plane crashes, explosions, toxic chemicals, radiation, novel viruses.

·        More engaging forms of training for hazardous situations is expected to engender higher dread, that is, a realisation of the dangers of the context, and therefore enhance trainee knowledge and performance.

·        Some work supports the idea that higher unpleasant feelings, such as associated with dread risk, can motivate people to act in different ways in order to minimise these feelings or avoid those consequences

Their hypotheses were:

1.      In comparison to less engaging safety training, highly engaging safety training will be associated with greater knowledge acquisition.

2.      In comparison to less engaging safety training, highly engaging safety training will be associated with higher safety performance.

3.      Hazardous event/exposure severity moderates the relationship between training engagement and knowledge acquisition, such that the relationship is stronger for events/ exposures that are more likely to produce or inflict severe injury, illness, or death.

4.      Hazardous event/exposure severity moderates the relationship between training engagement and safety performance, such that the relationship is stronger for events/ exposures that are more likely to produce or inflict severe injury, illness, or death.

Results

Overall, this meta-analysis found support for:

·        Highly engaging training having greater impacts on safety knowledge acquisition compared to less engaging training.

·        Highly engaging training is associated with a higher level of safety performance compared to less engaging.

·        Highly engaging training is more effective under conditions of high hazards (dread) compared to low hazards.

·        Both less and higher engaging training were effective for lower hazard potentials.

They note that “highly engaging training is considerably more effective in promoting safety knowledge and safety performance than less engaging training, particularly when the severity level of hazardous event/ exposure is high. When hazardous event/exposure severity is low, less engaging training approaches appear to be as effective as those that are highly engaging” (p62).

Indeed, and not unexpected, highly engaging training enhanced trainee knowledge acquisition and performance and particularly under high hazard conditions; this resulted from the active process of “action, dialogue, and reflection”, which aren’t pronounced during passive/less engaging methods.

Dread was suggested as a psychological mechanism explaining why high hazard exposures motivated higher learning potential from active processes. With higher dread, people have more intrinsic motivation to learn about the hazards and resultingly, become more pessimistic about their exposure to these issues in the workplace. This may help workers “reflect on or imagine the experience of such an outcome … [and] that a pessimistic outlook may be wiser in preparing for and responding to possible negative outcomes” (p64).

Less anticipated findings from this study were that:

1) both more and less engaging training were equally effective under low hazard conditions. This may be influenced by second-order sampling of data within the research, and

2) the lowest effects for training efficacy was in the high hazard but low training engagement condition.

The second point appears to be critical. The condition where we need people to be best informed, cognisant and competent around hazards–high hazard/dread conditions–is also the same condition where the most common type of training methodology (passive/lower engagement) is least effective.

It may be that higher hazard exposures often include more abstract or difficult to conceptualise hazards compared to lesser severity hazards (slips & trips and the like); therefore more difficult to internalise without more engaging means.

Finally, the authors note that given the large sample size of this meta-analysis – 113 studies, which included >24k participants across 16 countries – the findings likely have broad applicability.

Authors: Burke, M. J., Salvador, R. O., Smith-Crowe, K., Chan-Serafin, S., Smith, A., & Sonesh, S. (2011). Journal of applied psychology, 96(1), 46.

Study link: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/a0021838

Link to the LinkedIn article: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/dread-factor-how-hazards-safety-training-influence-ben-hutchinson

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