OHS education and training promotes positive worker practices

A systematic review from the Institute for Work & Health confirms that education and training lead to safer practices among workers. However, on their own, they might not reduce work-related injuries and illnesses. That makes education and training only one part, albeit an important part, of an effective occupational health and safety program.

Published: February 18, 2010

Workplace education and training programs have a positive effect on the safety practices of workers, concludes the newest systematic review from the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).

Whether it’s computer users adopting correct sitting postures and making ergonomic modifications to their workstations, farmers wearing personal protective equipment, or nurses applying universal precautions in a hospital environment, training seems to be an effective catalyst for bringing about changes in practices related to occupational health and safety (OHS).

This was expected, says IWH Scientist Dr. Lynda Robson, who led the review looking at the effectiveness of OHS training and education, because safe practices are considered an important way to achieve and maintain good health.

However, the review also suggests that training on its own will not reduce work-related injuries, diseases and early symptoms among workers. This finding may surprise OHS professionals. However, says Robson, it confirms a message that has been emerging from IWH systematic reviews of approaches to reduce musculoskeletal disorders: multi-component OHS programs are the key to effective prevention.

We believe that training is an important component of a workplace’s OHS system, but only one component, says Robson. Indeed, the study supports the validity of the hierarchy of controls.

The hierarchy of controls advocates the following OHS procedures to protect workers,
from the most to least preferred:

  • eliminate the hazard;
  • substitute less hazardous materials, processes, operations or equipment;
  • implement engineering controls;
  • introduce administrative controls such as safe work procedures, education and training, job rotation, etc.; and
  • supply personal protective equipment.

As Robson puts it, you can educate people to sit properly in order to reduce musculoskeletal disorders, but if they’re sitting on a wooden stool or at a poorly designed workstation, there’s only so much the education can achieve.

Review team supports OHS training

Each year, workplaces provide many hours of training to employees. A previous IWH study shows that roughly 15 per cent of the working population in Canada in any given year receives OHS training (Injury Prevention, 2007: vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 37-41). Given the money and time spent on this training, business owners want to know if training actually decreases injury and illness.

The systematic review, conducted by IWH in partnership with the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), set out to help answer this question. A review team of 16 researchers searched 10 electronic databases for studies on OHS education and training. From an initial pool of more than 6,450 articles, 22 studies were identified as relevant and of sufficient quality.

The review team assessed the studies to determine the impact of training in four areas:

  • knowledge — worker understanding of the training topic;
  • attitudes and beliefs — worker confidence in their ability to achieve desired OHS behaviours (self-efficacy) and their intention to act on the knowledge gained;
  • behaviours (or practices) — worker actions, as well as reduced hazards and exposures that could conceivably stem from worker actions; and
  • health — absence of workplace injuries and illnesses, as well as absence of early symptoms of these conditions.

The review team found strong evidence that training is effective in changing behaviours or practices. There were not enough studies of sufficient quality to conclude that training affects knowledge or attitudes and beliefs. However, in the few studies that were included, the evidence points toward training being effective in both of these areas. The studies were consistent in their findings, and the training effects were large.

With respect to health, the review team could not say OHS training has an effect. The studies were inconsistent in their findings about effectiveness, and the effects found were small.

In the end, the review team was confident supporting OHS training. We firmly recommend the use of workplace education and training programs based on this review, because they have a positive impact on the OHS practices of workers, says Robson. However, training should be one part of a multi-component OHS program. Employers who want to see a dramatic improvement in the health and safety of their workers need to think about more than just training.

The full systematic review and a summary are available at: www.iwh.on.ca/sys-reviews/training-and-education-programs.