What is “Competency-Based” Safety Training?

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Competency-based safety training is a form of occupational training that requires learners to demonstrate the ability to perform defined, concrete skills related to essential environmental, health and safety (EHS) performance objectives.

Training is not the objective

Closeup of a pen writing a check mark in a box
Training is about more than checking a box

To meet the myriad training requirements in today’s regulatory environment, EHS managers commit substantial time, effort and resources ensuring employees receive all the safety, environmental, and regulatory compliance training required by the various governing bodies. It is tempting to assign training just to “check a box,” in an attempt to comply with OSHA and other EHS regulations. It’s easy to forget that training, in itself, is not the objective. Training is simply a means to achieving the objective, which is employees obtaining the information and abilities necessary to address the environmental, health, safety, and legal hazards and responsibilities they must contend with in their jobs. In other words, it is not enough to simply show they sat in a classroom. The employee must actually obtain the skills needed to ensure true personnel safety, as well as environmental and regulatory performance.

Verifying that an employee has received training does not prove that the employee recognizes how to do their job effectively, or that they can identify ways to protect themselves, their co-workers, the environment and company property against the hazards their job can pose. It is important to make sure that employees don’t just take training, but that they achieve and maintain the competencies required to work safely. Competency-based safety training courses are designed to ensure that learners engage with the material and demonstrate their achievement of these competencies.

Performance-based standards

Regulating agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT), are concerned with whether personnel can safely perform the tasks required of them, not simply whether or not they’ve taken a test or received a certificate. While many of the regulations were initially quite prescriptive in their training requirements, over time these agencies have introduced requirements that employees at least are able to understand the training they are given and, in some cases, that they demonstrate competency over specific topics. For this reason, many training requirements found in federal regulations are knowledge-based, rather than purely prescriptive. That is to say, these requirements specify a required outcome, namely that the employee achieves competency.

A record that the employee attended a course, viewed a presentation or even passed a test, is not necessarily evidence of compliance. OSHA, for example, demands that employees must be capable of understanding what they have been trained on, and that employers verify that employees have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills to do their jobs safely.  For example, OSHA regulators will routinely determine compliance with the Hazard Communication training requirements by interviewing employees to determine if they have achieved the required health and safety competencies to levels appropriate to the hazards to which they are exposed in the workplace.

Similarly, DOT defines Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) training as “a systematic program that ensures a hazmat employee has familiarity with the general provisions of this subchapter is able to recognize and identify hazardous materials, has knowledge of specific requirements of this subchapter applicable to functions performed by the employee, and has knowledge of emergency response information, self-protection methods and procedures.

Regulators can determine compliance with training requirements based on information such as employee interviews, incident logs, and on-site observations, in addition to training records. If a regulator determines that an employee does not have the necessary knowledge and skills, then the employer may be found in violation of the law, even if they can show that training was delivered. That is why verifying employee competency – and documenting how competency was measured – are so important.

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What is a “competency” exactly?

Closeup of a group of people using fire extinguishers in a safety class
Competencies are what learners need to be able to do, such as use a fire extinguisher

Competencies are measurable behavioral objectives used to define the actions a learner should be able to perform, and the level of skill that learner must be able to demonstrate when performing that action, in order for the learner to be considered fully trained. In other words, competencies are the fundamental goals of the training, the things you need your employees to be able to do.

Direct linkage to objectives is critical

An effective EHS training program must establish direct links between identified hazards and their impacts. These hazards and impacts must then be associated with the competencies required to mitigate them, as well as the training designed to deliver the competencies. Companies must identify these hazards and impacts through comprehensive job hazard and environmental impact analysis, establish their relative significance, and determine what competencies are required to mitigate these risks. Once the competencies are defined, they must be linked with the training that will be delivered to meet them. This approach should be an ongoing process on a continual improvement cycle.

A competency-based safety training approach means that course designers focus on identifying key performance outcomes, delivering all necessary information and preparation needed to empower the learner to reach those outcomes, and developing assessments that effectively demonstrate that the learner has achieved the desired results.

The competency-based approach

Competency-based online training courses are designed to verify that the learner has obtained a specific, defined competency. Ideally, interactive, web-based courses should be structured with four primary components:

  1. A set of well-defined competencies (terminal learning objectives)
  2. The enabling learning objectives necessary to ensure that each competency is achieved
  3. Effective learning content to meet those learning objectives
  4. A validation component that demonstrates that the learner achieved the defined competencies

Most EHS training includes quizzes, exams or other written methods intended to show that learners completed the training. While these tests show the learner was at least exposed to the necessary learning material, they don’t verify that the learner can correctly perform the tasks they will be required to perform. For assessment materials to properly evaluate a learner’s progress and capabilities, they need to require that learners demonstrate they have achieved the competencies defined in the training.

Current instructional systems design approaches require that the test verifies that learning objectives be met. Successfully passing the test demonstrates that the learner grasped the safety concepts, or met the learning objectives that the instructional systems designer intended. Only if the training is specifically designed to provide a mechanism to demonstrate competencies is there any real evidence that that individual has achieved the competencies required to meet the organization’s EHS challenges.

This insistence on full competency can be an adjustment for learners. Most will be more familiar with courses that only require a certain percentage of correct answers to pass. For example, in grade school and college, there are degrees of passing or failing. A student can show up, do well on his or her exams and still pass the course, even if they don’t have full mastery of the subject matter. This can work in scholastic fields where perfection is less critical, but what if an employee only knew how to interact with 70% of the chemicals in his or her workplace?

Competency-based safety training is ideal for EHS topics

Woman engineer in the oil field repairing wellhead with the wrench wearing orange helmet and work clothes. Oil and gas concept.
Competency-based training is ideal for environmental health and safety training

Without verification of learner competency, training does not meet its basic goal, which is to ensure as fully as possible that learners have absorbed the content and met the terminal learning objectives. Safety and compliance training essentially requires employees to have full awareness of hazards, and mastery of their job duties. Competency-based safety training focuses on the specific skills learners need to do their jobs safely and effectively, such as choosing and wearing proper PPE, performing lockout/tagout consistently and correctly, and recognizing all hazards present at the worksite.

Competency-based safety training is also more effective because it isn’t limited to a written test or choosing which statements are correct. Learners can perform various tasks and simulations to demonstrate familiarity with the material, or help them to recognize what would be expected of them in their real work environment. This can help learners take a more active role in their own development. Rather than taking a training course merely because they have to, learners can become more aware of their role and the importance of demonstrating competency at the objectives being taught. This can enable them to actively seek out better training and new skills. Interactive courseware elements help learners stay engaged so they get more out of their training than if they were passive spectators, watching and taking training just because they were told to by their supervisor.

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