Our company is in the field of adult education/training, an area that I love. I have always believed that if each of us could learn just one thing each day we would greatly add to our relevance in society and our value as workers.

There are several definitions for the word “educate,” but one that applies to our case is: to train by formal instruction and supervised practice especially in a skill, trade or profession. Since training and education are used synonymously in many cases, let’s look at some definitions of the word “train.” One is: to form by instruction, discipline or drill. Another is: to make prepared for a test of skill. Of all the definitions, I like this best: to teach so as to make fit, qualified or proficient. Whether we are talking about operating complex electronic surveying equipment, driving a truck or working safely, we certainly want to be considered fit, qualified and proficient. I would like to add one more word to this definition: competent.

We run into a problem with safety education/training because it isn’t included in many of the other educational areas for surveying employees. The basis for other educational endeavors for employees originates with their primary education as well as their secondary education from a college or trade school. Math-related classes such as geometry, trigonometry and calculus aid everyone who enters a surveying or engineering field. Their English and writing classes help them compile job descriptions and reports. But how much safety training do they receive during primary or secondary education? Unfortunately, the answer is very little, if any. Those who take courses in an industrial arts curriculum may be told to wear some of the basic PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) items when operating a particular piece of machinery. As children, we were told not to go into the street, yet while working as field crew members today, we’re in the street all the time! When Congress passed the OSHA Act, no requirement was included for colleges and other schools to include courses on OSHA compliance issues. Yet in today’s society, a manager is required to be fully aware of all regulations that apply to his or her company. Likewise, employees have a duty to be informed about and obey all safety regulations that directly apply to their work. (While employees can’t be directly cited for lack of complying with OSHA regulations, a business owner can be if employees don’t comply.)

On many commercial construction jobsites, a sign is often posted that reads: “Safety First on This Project.” I can tell very quickly if a sign truly reflects a company’s belief or if it is merely a public relations tactic. In many cases, besides the aforementioned sign, a “Hardhats Required” sign and/or an “Eye Protection Required” sign is often posted. If every worker on the site is complying with these last two basic requirements, then it is a sure bet that the companies have trained their employees to comply with the regulations and jobsite rules.

It is quite interesting to talk with employees at sites like these. When you ask them why they are wearing the Personal Protective Equipment, you will get one of the following two answers: “Because I don’t want to get hurt” or “So we don’t get cited by OSHA.” Does it make a difference which answer you get? I believe it does. An employee wearing the equipment to merely comply with OSHA doesn’t really understand the true meaning of why he or she needs to wear the equipment. When a worker understands that Personal Protective Equipment protects only her and may keep her from getting injured, then someone has done a good job of educating her on why safety precautions are important.

It is very important to provide safety training at the basic level to all employees. OSHA requires employers to inform employees of jobs that require PPE and when it should be worn. Without that basic level of training, employees may not know what to do if they are faced with an uncommon situation. For example, a PPE Hazard Analysis for a job may determine that employees need to wear eye protection when using a chain saw, hammering stakes into the ground or pavement, and working on a construction jobsite. You may have covered all the normal situations where eye protection would be needed, but what happens when a worker unexpectedly has to go into a landfill and is exposed to flying particles from debris in the area? Without the basic knowledge of when PPE is needed, the employee may not have the education or training to determine that eye protection needs to be worn. To me, the basics are still the most important items to teach.

Confined space training is another good example of necessary education and training. Rather than explain the spaces that are most common for an employee to encounter, it is best to teach them the reasoning behind determining which spaces are considered “confined” and which may be elevated to a Permit Required Confined Space level. With this approach to training, workers will have the requisite knowledge to make their own determination when an unusual space is encountered.

I believe that your efforts in safety education parallel the old saying: If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime. If you teach your employees how to avoid getting cited by OSHA, you may scrape by without incidents for a little while. But if you teach your employees the basics of safety and the reasoning behind the principles of protection, you will ensure that they engage in safer practices for a lifetime.