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Why the Best Safety Training Programs Make Personal Connections

Oct 18, 2021

Leader of safety training programs speaking-with-a-workerSafety training programs play a pivotal role in strengthening culture, communicating best practices and gaining your team’s buy-in. And the best safety trainers know that one of the most effective ways to inspire change and improve safety outcomes is to develop personal connections.

These can happen organically while working with others on a day-to-day basis, but personal connections can also be formed intentionally during the course of safety training and leveraged to make material more accessible and memorable.

Here’s a look at some of the tools you can use to forge personal connections in your safety training program.

1. Tell Stories

One of the most powerful ways to establish a connection in safety training is through storytelling, says Regina McMichael, CSP, CIT, president of the Learning Factory and author of “The Safety Training Ninja,” a book about creating safety courses workers want to attend.

The methods and approaches used in adult learning are different than those used with children. Adults need to connect to the topic, feel like they can fix problems and have some control over the learning process, McMichael says.

“This is why storytelling is the way to go,” she says.

As an example, McMichael shares a story that she uses for confined space entry training: As many safety professionals know, untrained personnel are never to attempt a confined space entry rescue. During her first time in an underground confined space, she and her team lost connection to their topside contact. As difficult as it was for that person to leave the team down there, he did the right thing and called 911.

Being in that situation, McMichael says she saw how hard it was for the topside worker to follow the training, and she understood the emotional impact of this type of learning in a new way.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about storytelling:

  • It’s OK if you don’t have a firsthand experience like McMichaels’. You may be able to draw on a personal experience that tells a similar story. “Your storytelling doesn’t have to be about safety in order to make it relevant. It’s the outcome that has to be relevant,” McMichael says.
  • This is a great opportunity to better understand learners and their roles so you can walk in their shoes and speak their language. Look for ways to do this before leading a safety training.

2. Inspire Learners to Share Stories

When you don’t have any stories that would adequately provide the connection you need, or you want to further engage your audience, you can prompt others to share their experiences.

This has the added benefit of allowing participants to learn from and develop connections with each other and not just you as the trainer, McMichael says.

While it may take some practice to draw stories out of participants, you can prepare ahead of time.

  • Talk to people who work in the environments or with the tools you will cover during safety training — those who work at height or with digger derricks, for example — and get to know their perspectives.
  • Ask the right questions. When soliciting stories, you don’t have to ask for a story directly relating to the material. Try asking about one of the elements or outcomes you want to emphasize, such as feeling afraid or wanting to stay safe to get home to loved ones.

3. Exhibit Vulnerability

“Anybody can stand up in front of the room and spout regulations, but to make that personal impact, you have to be vulnerable,” McMichael says. There are a few ways to do that.

  • Discuss the complicated nature of the material and your own struggles getting it down.
  • Share past failures or imperfections and what you’ve learned from them.
  • Talk about past misconceptions or misunderstandings you’ve had and how you’ve grown.

“I don’t mean be self-deprecating,” McMichael says. “We’re all in a learning process every day of our lives, so highlight that.”

4. Create a Culture of Positivity and a Sense of Community

Your organization’s safety culture will affect the way your message is perceived. And while that culture is not entirely within your control, there are steps you can take to cultivate positivity.

  • Use work-appropriate humor that helps learners relax.
  • Ask icebreaker questions (for instance, “What is your least-favorite thing about safety training?”) to set a congenial tone.
  • Talk about preconceived notions of safety training and address concerns.

5. Look for New Ways to Connect

It’s important to remember that while it may not be possible to develop relationships with all learners during safety training, the least-chatty participants may have a lot to say in another format. McMichael recommends “homework” assignments to encourage reflection and start a written dialogue with participants.

“This allows for so much more interaction because you can respond to what they wrote and start a conversation that way,” she says.

  • Ask workers to complete a questionnaire using email or an online form. Ensure there are open-ended questions.
  • The goal isn’t busywork, it’s connection, so be sure to respond with your comments.

Virtual Safety Training: Making It Happen

Whether presenting in person or virtually, many safety training program musts are the same, so make sure you have the basics right.

“If you weren’t making personal connections before it’s not going to happen virtually,” McMichael says. “Face-to-face challenges won’t be any easier to solve online.”

However, the different format does pose some unique challenges in keeping everyone engaged, developing class culture and ensuring that everything runs smoothly.

Here are some tips for making your virtual training as impactful as your in-person training.

  • Take advantage of pauses. When you want to make a really clear point, slow down, pause, look into the camera and be silent for a moment, McMichael says. “Even saying, ‘Everybody stop and look at me’ draws attention to your point and adds to the layers of connection you’re trying to build.”
  • Make “eye” contact.  It can take some practice to remember to look into the camera instead of a person’s eyes, but it makes a big difference, McMichael says. “It appears as if I’m looking at right at you, and you feel that on the other side.”
  • Invest in equipment. If you are able, investing in a good camera, microphone, headset and lighting kit can ensure that your presentation is as clear as possible. Grainy video and fuzzy audio may make it easier for learners to tune you out.
  • Be next-level prepared. Have all your props, documents, decks, videos and other visual aids ready to go. Why is this so important? “You want to have a very fluid feel that allows people to build trust in you, that you know what you’re doing and talking about,” McMichael says.

If you’re tempted to think of virtual training as a temporary thing — don’t, McMichael says.

“The virtual world isn’t going to go away,” she adds, which is why she suggests investing time, energy and effort in improving your online presentation skills.

Regardless of format, forging a personal connection not only helps you be a better safety professional, but it ultimately helps keep workers safe.


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