Getting safety training right or wrong has immediately obvious and emotionally and financially tangible consequences. The rewards of: no deaths or disabling injuries, no grieving families, no grieving workmates, no damage to reputation, plant and machinery, no increase in compliance costs and full availability of your products and services in the market place are compelling.

Changing people’s behaviour with regard to safety is a time consuming, difficult business. General training does not have the immediate and emotional rewards of safety training. Changing people’s behaviour without those rewards is even more difficult.

The lessons that organisations have learnt in making safety training effective are, therefore, all the more instructional for general training.

In particular, studies of the effectiveness of training which combined an understanding of human psychology with a review of actual training programmes have specific findings relevant to all training.

A study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the US into the effectiveness training for carpenters to prevent hearing loss attempted to understand what limited training effectiveness and to redesign training to improve its effectiveness.

Hearing loss in carpenters in the US is most simply described by the statement, “25 year olds have 45 year old ears”. It is a big problem. Although carpenters surveyed understood that hearing loss was an industry problem, that it would affect them personally and believed that hearing protection could prevent hearing loss, they still did not actually wear hearing protection. Subsequently, they still suffered hearing loss.

Training programmes had been effective in raising awareness but not changing behaviour.

The researchers used the theory of reasoned action (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980) to understand the factors limiting the effectiveness of the training.

The basic tenet of the theory is that a person’s behaviour is determined by their intention to perform the desired behaviour. This intention is determined by three things: their attitude toward the specific behaviour, their subjective norms and their perceived behavioural control.

People’s attitudes are influenced by their beliefs about the behaviour, their subjective norms by their beliefs about how people they care about will view the behaviour and perceived behavioural control by their perception of their ability to perform a given behaviour.

The research revealed that carpenters beliefs included; that wearing hearing protection would stop them hearing warning signals such as reversing vehicles, thought others would laugh at them for wearing hearing protection and did not know how to fit hearing protection properly.

Therefore, no amount of training in the need to wear hearing protection was going to influence the carpenter’s behaviour.

To design a coherent model of learning and reinforcement that actually changed behaviour, the researchers turned to the stages of change model (Prochaska).

The model describes five stages:

  • Pre-contemplation: Unaware of the problem, hasn’t thought about change
  • Contemplation: Thinking about change, in the near future
  • Determination: Making a plan to change plans, setting gradual goals
  • Action: Implementation of specific action plans
  • Maintenance: Continuation of desirable actions, or repeating periodic recommended step(s).


The recommended approaches for each stage are:

  • Pre-contemplation: Increase awareness of need for change, personalise information on risks and benefits
  • Contemplation: Motivate, encourage to make specific plans
  • Determination: Assist in developing concrete action
  • Action: Assist with feedback, problem solving, social support, reinforcement
  • Maintenance: Assist in coping, reminders, finding alternatives, avoiding slips/relapses (as appropriate).


Research by Prochaska and others indicated that if programmes only concentrated on messages appropriate for those in the action stage, only 1-2% of behaviour change can be expected with the first round of interventions. However, by carefully segmenting the audience and targeting messages with a stage based approach, 12-18% behaviour change can be expected after the first delivery of the programme.

Taking this into account the researchers designed an approach that used graphic images and videos to raise awareness to move pre-contemplators to contemplation.

To move people from contemplation to determination used case studies and posed “what if” questions about individuals and the impact on their families.

To move people from determination to action they set reasonable goals, made specific plans, encouraged public pledges and reinforced the belief that there were more pros than cons by removing barriers to use e.g. comfort, insufficient skill to properly fit hearing protection

To maintain the preferred behaviour they devised informal and formal rewards for the desired behaviour.

Without going into detail, the revised training had its effect.

The lessons to be learnt from this approach are, of course, directly transferable to other safety training programmes. Moreover, the approach has applicability in general training where the preferred business outcome requires a change in behaviour.

For example, front line customer service staff in the hospitality industry, retail sales staff and public servant’s attitude to the concept of having a customer with expectations of service come to mind.

Traditional training approaches may be safe, but they do not change behaviour.