As occupational health and safety management rises to the top of organisational priorities, and changing legislation aims to shore up any cracks or loop holes, the once considered trivial or ambiguous area of training refreshers begins to rear its head. Where once this important element of ensuring worker competency resided on the side lines and in the "if we have to" category of an organisations health and safety budget, it now, amongst other neglected elements of health and safety management, must be considered in order to reduce risk as far as is reasonably practicable.
Must we refresh?
Refresher training, is, as it alludes to, training that refreshes the knowledge of the trainee periodically after the initial training takes place. In NZ, some training events are required to be 'refreshed' by law, including certificates of competence in asbestos removal, scaffolding and dangerous goods licencing.
These collective requirements have been set by the government and vested interest groups and are based on the premise that unless refreshed, the knowledge level required to keep these workers or other people safe and healthy will be reduced over time. Setting blanket legislative requirements such as those mentioned above can be advantageous, as this ensures a certain level of competence across a wide range of trainees. This creates uniformity.
The question must then be asked, how is this time lapse between training events determined? Trainee A may be extremely competent at the time of his mandatory refresher, whereas trainee B's level of competency may have diminished in a matter of weeks after his initial training. How common is this scenario in your own workplace? Making specific training mandatory, nationwide, may lead to a "tick box" "off the shelf" training culture, with a perception that all is well. But aside from the mandatory requirements, when is refresher training necessary?
How long is too long?
The standard reply when somebody questions the validity of or the requirement for refresher training is: "it's industry best practice". This standard of industry best practice originates from larger organisations or industry leaders specifying a mandatory 'refresher' period for their employees and sub-contractors, or as a result of international legislative requirements filtering into NZ through large multinationals.
These industry leaders have identified that after a particular time period, the chances of a trainee failing to remember certain key elements of the OHS training have diminished so far that the amount of risk has risen to an unacceptable level. This justifies the investment in 'refreshing' or re-training. The theory of 'skill fade' reinforces the fact that knowledge retention diminishes over time. This can be attributed to a number of contributory factors including, cognitive ability and training design taking account of the complexity of the job.
I can relate to training events that I have undertaken, as I'm sure the readers of this article will concur with where only days or weeks later, key elements of that training could not be recalled. There are many possible reasons for this forgetfulness such as the quality of the training, relevance to daily duties, a lack of a training needs analysis and knowledge prioritisation. But this reinforces that skill/knowledge fade does exist, and not only in the skill sets mentioned already.
Another standard reaction that can be heard when refresher training is mentioned is: "I have been doing this every day for 20 years, why do I need refreshing?". This common reaction can be argued: After long time periods doing repetitive, monotonous tasks, short cuts, workarounds and complacency may set in. This can be compounded by legislative changes, technological advances or the development of better ways of doing things - all of these factors contribute to the level of risk.
Refresher training and risk management.
It is commonly believed that in order to manage occupational health and safety effectively, a robust health and safety management system should be developed, implemented, maintained and reviewed. Integral elements of an effective health and safety management system are active monitoring, review and risk assessment. Through these steps, gaps in workers competency can be identified and mitigated through training. Over time, the results of active monitoring and review of risk assessment may indicate that training needs to be refreshed or re-training needs to take place.
Is refresher training just re-training? By referring to it as re-training, do we remove the stigma attached to the term 'refresher'? Care must be taken when designing refresher training. The content should be focused on the areas where the trainee is lacking, taking account of the detail in your risk assessment.
When risk assessing a particular task, hazard or workplace, one of the mitigating measures at our disposal to reduce the risk, or lower it to an acceptable level is training. This is especially poignant when mitigating high risk sectors such as the forestry, chemical and construction industries. All risk assessments that identify training as a risk reduction measure should be supported by a detailed training needs analysis.
What for the future?
As we move toward legislation that requires us to manage risk as far as is reasonably practicable, identifying refresher training as a measure that reduces risk, whether industry best practice or not, should be an effective input into every organisation's health and safety management system.