Workplace Safety Training: What Works, What Doesn't

Workplace safety issues ranging from harassment to active shooter dangers continue to dominate our headlines. Anti-sexual harassment training has been around since 1980, after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released its first guidelines on the topic in response to the government declaring sexual harassment a form of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. And active shooter safety training courses for employees are cropping up by the dozens nationwide. 

While there’s a lack of research on the effectiveness of current sexual harassment trainings, anecdotally, and considering the #MeToo movement alone, they’re far from satisfactory. And while nobody knows whether active shooter safety training will successfully prevent or halt such an incident, decision-makers continue to be wary of these services for liability reasons, while employees who have participated in trainings report feelings of anxiety, overwhelm and self-doubt.

What is abundantly clear, however, is that a common thread unites incidences of workplace harassment and violence: warning signs and policy violations that are frequently observed but not acted upon. 

The traditional thinking about this issue has been that a lack of knowledge about what to do has prevented action from being taken. Consequently, almost all forms of available workplace safety training follow a skills-first approach — teaching employees and team leaders how to respond in these scenarios. If this happens, do this. If that happens, do that. 

There are two major issues with this approach that, combined, are in large part responsible for why workplace safety training has continued to miss its mark: 

1. Lack of time. Companies and organizations of all sizes are hard-pressed to commit workday hours to training, especially on a company-wide scale. And skills-first training models are only effective given extensive training time. When applied to the short-term or stand-alone training needs of corporations, skills-based safety training falls short. 

2. Lack of understanding about why employees don’t take action. While a lack of knowledge about what to do may contribute to passivity in the face of a red flag or blatant abuse, the root cause is an inherent sense of powerlessness. Powerlessness is the foundation of avoidance, acceptance, deflection and inaction. 

People don’t fail to act because they don’t know what to do. They fail to act because they don’t know if they’re allowed to or capable of doing so.

When you pile hands-on skills onto the shaky platform of insecurity and a lack of personal power,  it’s not only a setup for failure, but a liability. 

When teaching civilians in the workplace under limited-time settings, the most effective, efficient and wide-reaching approach to safety training is through an empowerment-first curriculum. This modality includes:

  • cultivating intuition

  • fostering voice and self-advocacy

  • honestly discussing the emotional, psychological and physical variables inherent in stressful work situations

  • and above all else, communicating permission to act without the weight of obligation to do so

When Skills-First Training Works

Skills-first training can be effective under very specific conditions — ample time and extensive repetition. In order for a skillset to become accessible and dependable under the stresses of a real-world application (as opposed to simply in training scenarios), the techniques need to be committed to muscle memory. Much like riding a bike, most people are able to do it without involvement of logical thought, even after an elapsed time.

Military and law enforcement agencies across the globe predominantly utilize skills-first training because it’s the most effective way to ensure faster and safer responses in very dangerous situations. But it’s critical to realize that they are only able to utilize this type of training because they have devoted hundreds of hours to committing these responses to muscle memory. They have the time and they put in the repetition. It’s their job. 

Because the vast majority of workplace safety and self-defense training providers are either current or retired military and law enforcement personnel, or private sector security companies (most of which are comprised of current or retired military and law enforcement personnel), it’s not surprising that almost all of the safety training available to corporations and institutions at this time are based on a skills-first curriculum. 

This approach, however, does not take into consideration the unique needs of organizations and institutions, nor does it consider the needs of the individuals who will be taking the classes. 

The Dangers of Skills-First Training in the Workplace

Outside of the military and law enforcement, skills-first safety training in the workplace carries significant risks. The most obvious is that it simply won’t work, wasting countless dollars and team hours, and not making employees any safer. But there’s an even greater risk to employees: trauma

Putting the expectation and obligation of taking action under high-stress onto team members who may lack the personal power and confidence to do so invites anxiety, self-doubt and fear. Add to the mix the reality that there will be survivors of violence attending these trainings, and it becomes imperative that service providers are educated on how to safely work with trauma survivors through a curriculum that is trauma-informed. 

Exercises that throw participants into the midst of addressing potentially terrifying workplace situations, without first addressing the emotional, psychological and social factors that surround these scenarios, can be a recipe for not just failure, but disaster. Not infrequently, employees of skills-first workplace safety trainings report feeling less prepared and more anxious than before the training took place. 

Empowerment-First Training Is Best

Powerlessness is a complicated state, typically strengthened by experiences from childhood, at home, in everyday life, and at work, where diligent rule following is often a requisite for employment. Fully dismantling powerlessness is a lengthy process that can’t be completed through empowerment-first safety training alone. When you consider the safety needs of institutions — team members who tap into their intuition and make decisions to act, whether addressing an incident head-on, or notifying an appropriate channel — and a limited time allowance for training, empowerment-first training models emerge as the appropriate and most effective solution. 

One of the key benefits of empowerment-first safety training is that empowered employees not only perform better on the job, but that personal power carries beyond the office, the clinic, and the classroom, positively affecting personal relationships and activities as well.

For organizations with the resources to devote to ongoing, extensive and consistent safety training, skill-specific training following empowerment-based safety training provides team members with the best of both worlds. But for institutions with limited time and finances, empowerment-first safety training is the key to success. 

The ultimate goal of safety training is to transition the roadblock of, “Can I?” to the power of “I can.

We specialize in providing empowerment-first safety training that is taught in a supportive and trauma-informed way. We’d love to work with your team. Contact us today.