The Effectiveness of Safety Training
Updated: Nov 7
Occupational health and safety (OHS) training is critical for employee safety. But are safety training programs effective? Does safety training significantly affect employees’ safety knowledge, attitudes, behaviours, and health (i.e., injuries, illnesses)?
Safety researchers have long been interested in these questions. There are three review papers that I will be discussing in this blog post. Each of these three reviews compiled research on occupational health and/or safety training to evaluate the effectiveness of these training programs.
First, Dr. Michael Burke and colleagues (2006) were interested in whether more engaging forms of safety training are more effective than less engaging forms of safety training.
The level of engagement was classified as follows:
High: active participation, two-way dialogue, reflection, experiential-based, hands-on, behavioural modelling, simulations
Moderate: programmed or computer-interface instruction with feedback
Low: passive, lectures, films, reading, video-based, pamphlets
Burke and colleagues proposed that more engaging forms of training would be more effective because learning is enhanced when trainees are more engaged in training. Specifically, it is suggested they are more likely to acquire knowledge and use their new knowledge and skills on the job.
A total of 95 studies met the following criteria to be included in the review:
Quasi-experimental study design (i.e., similar to a true experiment, but without random assignment to treatment versus control groups)
Working population participants
Clear method of training intervention (to code for level of engagement)
Measurement of safety knowledge, safety performance, and/or a safety and health outcome (e.g., injuries, illnesses)
High engagement training had greater effects than did moderate engagement training or low engagement training for (1) safety knowledge acquisition and (2) safety and health outcomes (e.g., fewer injuries and illnesses).
The level of engagement did not make a significant difference with respect to the effects on behavioural safety performance.
Second, building on the above 2006 review, Dr. Michael Burke and colleagues (2011) conducted another review to see of the risk of a hazardous environment interacts with the level of engagement of the training to affect safety outcomes.
The same classification noted above for training engagement was used. However, moderate and low level engagement training were combined to form a “less engaging training” category in order to compare “highly engaging training methods” to “less engaging training methods”.
The following classification was used for hazards (with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Injury and Illness Classification System as a guide to form categories based on the potential for severe illness, injury, or death due to hazardous events or exposure):
High hazard: exposure to harmful substances and environments, transportation accidents, fires and explosions, assaults and violent acts
Low hazard: contact with objects, falls, bodily reaction/exertion
In terms of hazard exposure, the idea is that when there is higher potential for injury or illness, there are accompanying negative emotions which motivate people to learn how to prevent such occurrences.
It is expected that high hazard exposure will motivate workers which along with highly engaging training will enhance the benefits from training, namely safety knowledge acquisition and behavioural safety performance.
A total of 113 studies met the following criteria to be included in the review:
Experimental or quasi-experimental intervention
Working population participants
Included the following information: method of training (to code for level of engagement), nature of workplace hazards, and measurement of outcomes (safety knowledge and safety performance)
The results suggest that highly engaging safety training is more effective than less engaging safety training for (1) safety knowledge acquisition and (2) behavioural safety performance.
The result for safety knowledge acquisition is similar to the 2006 review above; however, this 2011 review finds significant effects on behavioural safety performance which was not the case in the 2006 review.
Interaction of engagement and hazards:
In low hazard conditions: There is no significant difference between high and low engagement training for (1) safety knowledge acquisition nor (2) behavioural safety performance.
In high hazard conditions: Highly engaging safety training is more effective than less engaging safety training for (1) safety knowledge acquisition and (2) behavioural safety performance.
Note. In the low hazard condition, less engaging and highly engaging training had comparable effects on safety knowledge acquisition and safety performance. This suggests that less engaging safety training could be sufficient when there are not extreme hazards in the work environment. However, a small number of studies tested this; therefore, more research is needed to determine if less engaging safety training is sufficient for health and safety knowledge acquisition and safety performance in low hazard work environments.
Finally, the smallest effects of training on safety knowledge acquisition and safety performance were found with the combination of high hazard work environments and low engagement training. This suggests that when working in a highly hazardous environment, less engaging training is insufficient to have significant effects for safety knowledge acquisition and transfer of training to the job in terms of behavioural safety performance.
Third, Dr. Lynda Robson and colleagues (2012) conducted a systematic review of the safety training literature in an effort to further address the following two questions:
Is occupational health and safety training beneficial for employees?
Does higher engagement occupational health and safety training (e.g., trainee active participation) yield greater benefits for employees than lower engagement training (e.g., lecture-style training)?
A total of 22 studies met the following criteria to be included in the review:
OHS training intervention focused on prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses.
Randomized controlled trial
Pre- and post-tests
Published in peer reviewed journal
These criteria aim to ensure the highest quality of studies are included thus stronger conclusions can be made regarding the effectiveness of OHS training.
The results suggest that occupational health and safety training does affect safety knowledge acquisition and safety performance.
Large statistically significant effects were found for OHS training on (1) OHS knowledge acquisition, and (2) safety behaviours (i.e. performance). There was insufficient evidence for conclusions regarding training effects on OHS attitudes and beliefs, and on health outcomes.
Finally, there was insufficient evidence (due to low number of studies) for conclusions about engagement levels. This is not to say that the level of engagement does not matter, but there are not enough rigorous studies out there to draw strong conclusions.
Taken together, what do these three reviews tell us about the effectiveness of occupational health and safety training?
Overall, occupational health and safety training has a large effect on safety behaviours and more engaging training (e.g., hands-on) training is generally more effective than less engaging training (e.g., lectures), particularly in more hazardous jobs/workplaces.
It is critical that employees are provided with safety training for their job. Providing OHS training ensures that employees have the knowledge required to perform their work in a safe manner. And ultimately, this results in improved safety behaviours which can subsequently lead to fewer injuries and illnesses in the workplace.
Burke, M. J., Sarpy, S. A., Smith-Crowe, K., Chan-Serafin, S., Salvador, R. O., & Islam, G. (2006). Relative effectiveness of worker safety and health training methods. American Journal of Public Health, 96(2), 315-324.
Burke, M. J., Salvador, R. O., Smith-Crowe, K., Chan-Serafin, S., Smith, A., & Sonesh, S. (2011). The dread factor: How hazards and safety training influence learning and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(1), 46-70.
Robson, L. S., Stephenson, C. M., Schulte, P. A., Amick III, B. C., Irvin, E. L., Eggerth, D. E., Chan, S., Bielecky, A. R., Wang, A. M., Heidotting, T. L., Peters, R. H., Clarke, J. A., Cullen, K., Rotunda, C. J., & Grubb, P. L. (2012). A systematic review of the effectiveness of occupational health and safety training. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 193-208.