Embedding essential skills training in OHS lessons can boost learning: study

A pilot project by the Institute for Work & Health finds improved learning when hoisting and rigging students receive essential skills content as part of OHS training

Published: April 26, 2018

At construction sites, the work of rigging and hoisting loads comes with significant hazards. Crews must accurately calculate the weight of materials being hoisted and determine the appropriate rigging techniques and equipment to use. They have to take into account weather conditions, adjust for nearby obstacles such as power lines and, with each lift, run through a long checklist of precautions—many of which are required by law. Mistakes can result in dropped loads or even toppled cranes, potentially resulting in serious injuries or deaths.

Adding to the challenge of injury prevention in this line of work is the fact that many people in it have skills gaps when it comes to literacy, numeracy and other essential skills. That was why a research team led by the Institute for Work & Health focused on hoisting and rigging for a project on embedding essential skills learning into occupational health and safety (OHS) training. The team wanted to test the idea that modifying OHS training curricula to address gaps in essential skills among trainees could boost OHS learning and outcomes.

We know workers are reluctant to sign up for dedicated workplace literacy training programs, because to sign up is to identify themselves as having a gap, says Dr. Ron Saunders, lead researcher on the project. This becomes a challenge for OHS trainers because those taking the training may have essential skills gaps that make learning how to work safely difficult. Addressing this challenge was the motivation behind this research.

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To test its idea, the research team modified a hoisting and rigging curriculum developed by the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA)—the Ontario sector-based health and safety association that serves the construction sector—by embedding learning on two essential skills identified as key to working safely: numeracy and document use. The team found that learners who completed the modified training had significantly better post-training scores on a written test of course content than the learners who were given the usual training.

Results from that pilot study were so encouraging that the training centre involved in the project, the Labourers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 506 Training Centre, will keep the essential skills components as part of its rigging and hoisting curriculum. It may even make similar changes to other training programs.

This was a small study, so we have to be cautious, says Saunders, who shared study findings last fall at an IWH Speaker Series presentation. But our analysis says the learning—the performance on the written test at the end of the program—was significantly better for people who took the modified program. To achieve that with the small numbers we had means that the effect size was substantial.

In the wake of these findings, the team produced a guide, Essential Skills and OHS Training, that lays out the steps involved in embedding essential skills learning into OHS training.

According to the 2012 Survey of Adult Skills under the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, nearly half of working-age adults in Canada scored Level 3 or lower in reading and more than half scored below Level 3 in numeracy. On the survey’s scale of 1 to 5, Level 3 in reading is considered essential for most jobs, even jobs that don’t require a college diploma, university degree or specialized training. According to Employment and Social Development Canada, the nine essential skills include reading, document use, numeracy, writing, oral communication, working with others, continuous learning, thinking skills and digital technology.

The team identified the hoisting and rigging program offered by LIUNA Local 506, which uses the curriculum developed by IHSA, as the best candidate for the pilot study. The team modified the curriculum to include new text on how to use Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act and regulations as reference documents, new explanations for different methods for calculating loads, and updated calculation examples that contain substeps.

Forty learners were recruited into the study and divided into two groups. One group received the modified training; the other group—the “control” group—received the regular curriculum plus additional review time to ensure in-class learning time was the same for the two groups. Study participants were assessed on their essential skills prior to the training. Scores on a written test given at the end of the training were examined to determine training effectiveness.

The study showed that scores on the post-training written test were significantly higher among those who took the modified program. This was after controlling for age, language, educational level, years of experience in construction, and years of experience in hoisting and rigging. The team also controlled for the pre-training scores on document-use ability; however, because many participants did not complete the numeracy section of the pre-training assessment, the team could not use scores from that section in the statistical analysis.

The team also conducted focus groups and interviews with 25 learners to explore their perspectives on their training needs. Learners spoke of the tension between safety and the pressure to be productive. Many spoke of the job insecurity they experienced as low-skilled workers. They also spoke of common shortcuts to avoid doing calculations, such as trial lifts or estimating loads. Some also noted that estimating is good enough in most instances when loads are familiar, but when a load is not standard, the consequences of a wrong estimation can be deadly.

The focus groups brought to the fore that OHS training, including training that embeds essential skills learning, isn’t enough to prevent accidents when workplace factors, such as productivity pressures and lack of empowerment, make it difficult for workers to apply what they’ve learned, says Saunders.