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Online learning makes the grade for health and safety training

By Nestor E. Arellano

(Editor's Note: A number of our readers have been asking about the benefits of going online with their health and safety training versus the more personal classroom training. Due to popular request, we're bringing back our feature looking at the pros and cons of online training.)

The use of online training for employee education programs has spiked in recent years as scores of companies recognize the flexibility and lower cost of rolling out these types of courses compared to traditional face-to-face instruction methods.

Online education (also known as e-learning) broadly refers to instructions in a learning environment where teachers and students are separated by time or space, or both, and where course content is mainly provided and managed through the use of Internet and multimedia resources.

However, not all online courses are created equal and when it comes to occasionally tactile and skill-driven courses such as health and safety training, finding the appropriate mix of Web-based and in-person teaching strategies is essential.

“Online learning courses are rarely a one-shot-fix-all solution. Different courses require different tools,” says Chris Moore, manager for training and education services at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) a federal government work-related injury and illness prevention centre based in Hamilton, Ontario.

Virtual vs. physical

In the last three years, the number of companies turning to online learning solutions to provide health and safety instructions for employees has increased, says Moore.

For example, the CCOHS which began with a single classroom course, has expanded its offering to around 30 online courses covering diverse topics such as accident prevention, the Canadian Labour Code, electrical hazards, office health and safety and pandemic awareness. The CCOHS now has more than 1,000 organization customers and over 20,000 individual students signed up.

In-person training, however, still has some crucial advantages over online methods.

Depending on the competency of the instructor, in-person learning provides an opportunity for more immediate and closer interaction between student and teacher.

The teacher may be able to better evaluate whether the lesson is being absorbed by the class through visual and auditory cues and feedback. The instructor can adjust the pace of the course to suit the class.

Students, on the other hand, have immediate access to the instructor if they have any questions or need additional assistance with certain issues regarding the course content.

In-person training shines when an education program calls for tactile contact and skills-based learning, according to Alan Quilley, principal at Safety Results Ltd. based in Sherwood Park, Alberta, a firm that provides e-learning and in-person safety training and OH&S certificate course.

“When you’re teaching theory such as why it’s important to have fire extinguishers in a factory, online learning is fine. When you want to teach workers how to properly use the fire extinguisher in your factory, in-person is best,” he says.

For some types of health and safety training, employees need to determine the location of or physically handle certain equipment, Quilley says.

The advantages of e-learning are pretty compelling as well.

For one, instructors or students do not necessarily need to travel to meet at the classroom. This could potentially save companies anywhere from 30 to more than 50 per cent in traveling and infrastructure expenses, says Quilley.

Students can access instructional materials by accessing a course from a website, download a module, play a DVD or CD-ROM course or interact with other students and instructors from different locations through webinars, online discussions of videoconferences.

The online course may be self-paced because students can access material from a computer wherever and whenever they have time to spare. There is no need for complicated juggling of work duties.

“Students can take the course when they need it and not when the instructor is available,” says CCOHS’s Moore.

The course content is fairly consistent because all the students have access to the same material, says Carol Ferguson-Scott, the Atlantic regional safety specialist for Jacques Whitford, a Dartmouth, Nova Scotia-based international health and safety consultancy and training firm.

Whereas in-person classes are most effective when done in small groups, online instructions can be broadcast to a much larger audience, she adds.

“We have more than 1,600 employees in North America, Asia, the Middle East, South America and Europe. Online tools help us make sure the quality of training logistics for every worker is consistent,” she says.

Get to know your type

There are generally two categories of online learning.

Synchronous e-learning occurs when individuals access information at the same time. Examples of this could be real-time chat, video/audio conferencing or virtual classrooms.

Synchronous learning enables instant feedback on student performance and allows immediate adjustment of training when the need arises.

The method has become very popular with organizations that have widely dispersed workers because it establishes learning communities and encourages greater student engagement by simulating a classroom atmosphere although the participants may be thousands of miles apart.

Asynchronous or ‘store-and-forward’ e-learning method involves communication between people that does not occur simultaneously. Some examples include taking a self-paced online or DVD-based course, exchanging e-mail messages with an instructor and posting messages to a discussion group.

This method is ideal for individual learners or smaller groups.

The main advantage of this method is that students can take the course at their own speed. One possible setback of this type of method however, is that students can feel isolated and lose motivation because of the lack of real-time human interaction. In addition, there is a lag in feedback and very little room for course adjustment.

In many health and safety training situations, a “blended learning” approach is ideal in ensuring student engagement and topic retention, according to Ferguson-Scott of Jacques Whitford.

Blended learning is characterized by using a combination of traditional face-to-face lectures, tutorials and workshops with online activities such as e-mail announcements, discussion boards and quizzes. In this manner, students can receive faster feedback on online tests they have taken and can benefit from in-person discussions of class topics with instructors or fellow students.

Best Practices

Finding the appropriate online learning model does not depend so much on the industry as the nature of the topic being taught, says Quilley. Following are some essential considerations to ensure that your employees get the most out of training virtually.

Determine training needs. “Carefully evaluate what health and safety training needs your employees have and then consider your online training options and materials,” Safety Results’ Quilley advises.

Before starting a program, Quilley says, instructors must clearly set course objectives and metrics to judge the effectiveness of the course.

Evaluate the audience and topic. Course developers must also consider the competence level of the audience and complexity of the topic. “Some people are not comfortable with technology and might need more in-person instructions,” says Ferguson-Scott. “Topics such as workplace hazardous materials information system (WHMIS) might be simple to communicate but require more informational material than can be accommodated in a one-hour online course,” she adds. In such cases, additional hardcopy handouts might be advisable.


Avoid information overload. [/strong]Cut information into small chunks. Do not allow sessions to stretch over one hour, says Moore. “Any longer and you risk losing the student’s attention.” If the topic covers more information than can be contained in the session, provide links to online sites or a list of materials to research at a later period.

Make your point. Provide key concepts and messages in point form.  This allows for easy reading and recall by the students.

Mix it up. Keep audience engaged by using a mixture of text, illustrations, videos and slides. Provide students an opportunity to ask questions, pitch in on discussions, activities, quizzes or tests. Some workers function best when they are able to connect with fellow students or instructors.

Keep talking. It is also advisable to create a channel of communication for students to contact instructors if they have any questions about the subject or would like to go back to previously discussed topic. The best e-learning courses provide students a means to get in touch with a live instructor either online, by phone or in-person, says Quilley.


Nestor E. Arellano is a Toronto-based freelance journalist. You can reach him at

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