The Effectiveness of Workplace Training

Posted on by Carol Merry Stephenson, PhD

several men pointing at papers on a tableTraining is an important part of efforts to reduce workplace injury, illness, and death. In the United States, the total cost of workplace training is over $100 billion per year.1 In light of the costs and time involved with safety and health training, businesses want to know whether training can meet the goals of decreasing workplace injuries and illness, and whether the cost of training programs can be justified.

To better understand if occupational health and safety training and education programs have a beneficial effect on workers and businesses, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in collaboration with the Institute for Work and Health (IWH), Ontario, Canada, conducted a review of some of the recent research in this area. Earlier this month NIOSH and IWH released “A Systematic Review of the Effectiveness of Training & Education for the Protection of Workers.”

This report shows that investment in training results in positive changes in worker knowledge and skills, attitudes, and behavior. These results are encouraging given that a primary purpose for workplace training is to impart new skills/behaviors that are transferred into the workplace. However, this research revealed that training as a lone intervention has not been demonstrated to have an impact on reducing injuries or symptoms. The fact that the study did not show an effect of training on health outcomes was, in part, an indication that training alone is not sufficient to result in reduced morbidity, mortality, or injury. For training to be effective in preventing occupational injuries and illness, it also requires management commitment and investment and worker involvement in a comprehensive hazard identification and risk management program. Additionally, the nature of the available research, (we studied only randomized, controlled trials) prohibited us from linking training to health outcomes. Randomized, controlled trials are considered by many, but certainly not all, to be the gold standard in research designs, but they are often expensive, difficult to conduct, and sometimes impractical for workplaces. As a result, many training studies are only quasi-experimental or completely correlational. This makes it quite a bit harder if not impossible to draw generalizable conclusions about the effectiveness of the training studied.

The research also examined the impact of one characteristic of training programs—the degree to which they “engage” the learner in training activities. Low engagement is defined as training that uses oral, written, or multimedia presentations of information by an expert source, but requires little or no active participation by the learner other than attentiveness. High engagement involves hands-on practice in a realistic setting. While other authors present evidence supporting high engagement training2, our review of randomized, control trials published in the last ten years could not confirm that a single session of high engagement training has a greater effect on behavior than a single session of low/medium engagement training as the observed effects were too small.

In many cases, it was difficult or impossible to draw firm conclusions about the areas we examined due to the lack of quality research. There is a critical need for high quality, controlled studies of workplace health and safety training. That said, given that workplace education and training programs have a positive impact on health and safety behaviors, as we noted earlier in our discussion, and that training and education is a fundamental component of workplace safety and health protections, we recommend that workplaces continue to conduct education and training programs.

Researchers, training providers, labor, and management should continue to work together to advance the knowledge of effective practices in education and training. We encourage these parties to incorporate an evaluation component of training wherever possible and to utilize comparison or control groups. Additional research may reveal that improving training quality and effectiveness may require not only changes in the current parameters of the training programs, but also changes such as additional resources and an expansion of the audience for training to include supervisors, foremen and owners. We would appreciate your input on occupational health and safety training, particularly the feasibility of adding additional rigor to research designs through use of randomized controlled trials or other methodologies utilizing comparison groups, novel methods for evaluating “transfer of training” into the workplace, and methods that facilitate the measurement of “return on investment” of training to organizations.

We offer the following suggestions as areas for future research:

  • Studies investigating factors associated with optimal intervals for refresher training
  • Studies exploring and better defining the concept of training “engagement”
  • Studies broadening our understanding of the effects of pre-training factors on training success
  • Studies that discriminate between various elements related to training methods, delivery, and media
  • Additional investigations clarifying what is known about factors affecting transfer of training
  • Further exploration of the role of national culture in training effectiveness, particularly as it relates to beliefs about acceptable risk3
  • Broad efforts to validate comprehensive models such as that proposed by Alvarez et al.4

Dr. Stephenson is Chief of the Training Research and Evaluation Branch in the NIOSH Education and Information Division.


  1. Rivera RJ, Paradise A. State of the industry report. Alexandria (VA): American Society for Training and Development; 2006.
  2. Burke, MJ, Sarpy, SA, Smith-Crowe, K, Chan-Serafin,S, et al. Relative Effectiveness of Worker Safety and Health Training Methods. American Journal of Public Health; 2006; 96, 2: 315-324.
  3. Burke MJ, Chan-Serafin S, Salvador R, Smith A, Sarpy S. The role of national culture and organizational climate in safety training effectiveness. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. 2008; 17:133-154.
  4. Alvarez K, Salas E, Garofano CM. An integrated model of training evaluation and effectiveness. Human Resource Development Review. 2004; 3(4): 385-416.
Posted on by Carol Merry Stephenson, PhD

38 comments on “The Effectiveness of Workplace Training”

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    A fine article on an important part of worklife.

    In my studies of workplace safety cultures, I’ve found that consistency a critical component. Employees carefully monitor the attitudes of colleagues, supervisors and upper management to safety behavior. They adapt their approach to the prevailing values even though they may be critical of lax behavior in others.

    New and useful knowledge in this field requires active collaborations of academic researchers with businesses with serious commitment to not only studying issues but to putting results to critical evaluation. I’ve been fortunate to find a few such organizations, but only a few. There’s lots more work to be done to refine approaches to promoting safety cultures.


    Great blog post Carol. When I read the report I was concerned that, like the Cochrane studies, it was setting the bar too high. I like how you put it in context. Training is necessary but not sufficient. The need for training of supervisors and management is critical. Thanks for this post.

    Thank you to the authors of this review for this work, it is greatly appreciated. I work in the medical sector where there is a lot of attention to the concept of “evidence based” and a systematic review like this will really help with demonstrating to staff that training must be associated with management activity in order to reduce injury and illness rates.

    I have read the entire results and this is a great review, but it appears that there was insufficient data to make too many conclusions. The main conclusion seems to be that Workplace Safety Training at all levels is certainly beneficial, but should always be accompanied by other safety efforts. Examples would be management emphasis, hazard elimination and behavior reinforcement.

    National Safety Compliance

    Great review, I would like to see a comprehensive study done with a focus on the degree of engagement in which the learner is given in training activities. Most work place safety is focused on mechanical failure and protection than behaviors, which seem to be a greater percentage of cause for workplace accidents.

    The study was interesting, but I was surprised to learn that training alone is not enough to reduce injuries. If employee commitment is part of the equation, what would be the suggestion to increase this commitment?

    How about focusing on field training for the construction industry with small crews and non English speaking or minimal English skills. What would be the most effective training for this group?

    Although the study is correct in every respect, it does not present any groundbreaking information. Worker training is vital in all fields.

    Training that is engaging, rather than a “power point to death” is more effective. These should be given truths in the modern age.

    As a consultant we provide safety and health training to businesses as well as public sector organizations such as state government. The challenge with developing and implementing effective safety and health programs in the public sector in non-OSHA states is that there is little if any fiscal responsibility, which ties in directly with commitment to the program. As we all know, responsibility and commitment are catalysts to increase the effectiveness of training. So if anyone has ideas on how to instill fiscal responsibility and commitment in to state government as it relates to safety and health – please let all of us know.

    Chris, the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA) is the only way I know of that will address a universal public sector compliance with occupational safety. Especially in this time of government financial crises. Unfortunately, it appears that it will once again die the death of inaction.

    The only other possible solution would be to get the media to do a series of articles exposing taxpayers to the cost of the lack of effective safety programs in their own communities. A simultaneous increase of visible enforcement of federal entities (and state in state plan states) would help demonstrate that safety regulations are universal and unbiased.

    I am very happy to intimate that I have taken TIERR model for my PhD research work and tried to apply to know few cases where I was involved. I have slightly modified it using product life cycle ( retaining TIER model’s generic input-process-output and cause-effect generic model combining with product life cycle, treating training as a product-service)

    my doctoral committee fellows(professors) are asking me why/how I have landed on TIER model and why it is superior to other models.. search continues and explains why I am here now.

    In fact I wanted to design a beautiful training program as any greedy researcher and I am happy to have landed on a simple and beautiful training program, which has turned out to be a ‘industry orientation program to school children’ which carries in part on safety and in another part productivity.

    I am also very happy that I could measure in adhoc way connecting dreams intentions to short term and long term impacts/outcomes

    I am also very happy that I am an adult learner/researcher

    my model training may come out to be a small solution to motivate number of school children; cost my training works out to be Rs. 1/- per student that is about 1/50th of a US Dollar.

    going by my own experience on impact, I measure dreams, intentions and project likely long term actions; just making the initial spark

    employee that under went trainnig within the work place feels more commited towards the working envirenmont and their development because of the physical awareness.

    Dave – thank you for mentioning PAWA. I was not aware of that proposed legislation and the potential impact it may have on virtually all workers.

    The report referenced above is impressive and corroborates my personal findings with my clients. In my discussions with safety coordinators and managers in the Energy Industry, it is agreed that more complete and intensive training for all subject matter areas leads to greater competency. Yet, it is not done!

    There is also agreement, and in line with common sense, that more education and training gives an individual more Knowledge, Attitude, Belief, Behavior and successful Outcomes. Yet, it is not done!

    In training classes that I conduct part of my discovery process is to survey participants regarding previous qualification/certification training in their work experience. Almost all respondents indicate that compliance and qual/cert training is “Low Engagement.” They indicate that training is like a local news broadcast where super brief snippets are used to make a short news vignette. This method allows trainers to meet the minimum requirements of the law for training topics, but falls very short of training effectiveness. It is now assumed that the participant has the ability to take this extremely tiny amount of information and remember it, digest it, expand upon it, convert it, use it and become an expert in it.

    I would suggest that any training labeled “Competency” should be Medium and High Engagement, rigorous practical evaluations, multiple encounters and coupled with continuous interactive risk control communications every month while employee performs that work. If compliance training is low engagement it should be combined with an assertive program of interactive communications and interventions that routinely assess the employees’ retention and use of the training.

    The medical world contains a lot of information and there is always something new to learn. Whether someone is just looking at a medical assistant program or if they have been working in the field for years, there is always something new to learn. This is why I agree that these on the job training programs are a good idea as long as they are not costing so much that they are raising the costs for medical care for patients.

    Dr. Stephenson,
    As most companies struggle with the delivery of training programs, finding ways to increase the effectiveness of training is a significant ROI. Just a few minutes ago, my company’s compliance officer dropped by to let me know that he wants to roll-out a new CBT on ethics to be given to all of our 100,000 plus employees; many who treat English as a second language and have not completed at least high school in their home countries. I asked two things: How long is the CBT and to what grade language is it built. “40 Minutes and 10th grade” was the reply. I am interested in learn how others would respond in my place. Should the presentation be “dumbed-down” and shortened to increase the effectiveness or should we expect a check mark in front of everyone’s name that confirms attendance at the ethics training?

    It truly falls on management to decide their priorities. In some instances, management may decide that “mandatory” training is clearly “checking a square”– and thus taking the time to ensure that each employee comprehends and masters the training material is not a good return on investment. I would hope that these situations are rare– why ever waste time and effort on training that you don’t feel confident will have value? If a company decides to put any time into training, it necessarily has at least some impact on productivity. In the short term, employees being trained are not working– so productivity slows. The goal of training; however, is to equip employees with new training that will improve productivity in the long run. Some training, like ethics training, typically helps raise awareness about issues important to the company, helps employees avoid unintentional wrong-doing, and can be a real morale booster– showing employees that the company management is committed to positive, ethical work practices. So in this case, I would encourage you to take a good look at the content of the training, then take steps to ensure that the key messages are delivered to your English as a second language employees in a way that they can understand and make use of the concepts taught. This doesn’t have to be complex. It can be as simple as having a native speaker available to interpret the material, help field questions, and help discuss it so that it is clearly relevant to the employees. If the training for English speakers is an electronic, self paced product, (like this one may be) maybe it can be at least dubbed in the language of your workers, and then a brief in person session arranged after it is viewed to go over the main content and field questions. Or these workers may simply benefit from skipping the computer based training and arranging a safety meeting where an instructor outlines the key messages contained in the training for them. Clearly, a 10th grade English computer based training session is setting them up for frustration and likely non-comprehension of the material in this instance. There are also other possible unintended consequences of forcing employees to go through training that they can’t understand– it can be a big morale downer and may be perceived to indicate that the company doesn’t really care about them or the topic– in this case, ethics. Ironic I think.

    I would love to hear how you work this out–especially any lessons learned that work or don’t work that we can share with the training community.

    I have been wrestling with the issue of quality training ever since inventing a time management program that is highly engaging, but requires the user to make a series of habit change once the class is over.

    Habits are not easy to make or break, and I make that point over and over again in the training. At the same time, this knowledge makes no difference by itself. Only concerted action does, and I am always looking out for ways to tip the scales for participants towards taking small actions after the class. Any ideas on how to deepen my success would be welcome!

    As a physical therapist I have worked closely with the local fire departments in my city for the last 7 years doing fitness and injury prevention training as part of their wellness initiatives. The training I have done has contributed to a steadily increasing culture of health and fitness throughout the departments. Without the NFPA health and wellness initiative that was created about 10 years ago health and fitness would not have been a priority for management and in turn there would have been no budget for such training. Initiative like this are an important step in increasing training throughout industry.

    I believe companies can save from hospitalizations expenses due to accident in work place if they will just spent a little amount for the budget in training is work safety hazard

    As a safety trainer, I often wonder if an accident has ever been avoided because of anything I’ve taught. I have to believe that the answer is yes. I teach the OSHA 10 hour General Industry to 17 and 18 year old high school students and I know for a fact that they are hearing things that they’ve never heard before. I love the fact that this study is working with Canada. Sometimes it feels like Canadians take workplace safety more seriously than the United States as a whole does. Thanks for the article.

    Workplace training plays very important role in organizations. It helps to make your employees alert from workplace hazards. It is really nice to be visiting such an informative post.

    Workplace training plays very important role in organizations. It helps to make your employees alert from workplace hazards. It is really nice to be visiting such an informative post.

    Training is a crucial part of ensuring that your employees are able to avoid a workplace based accident as well as teaching them how best to act if one does take place. Another crucial step that should be implemented is the checking of equipment to make sure that it is in good working order and safe for use. If it isn’t it should be expeditiously replaced. If a company are not comfortable checking and maintaining their equipment they could always enlist an outside source. Either way, you shouldn’t take risks with the safety of your employees.

    The study was interesting, but I was surprised to learn that training alone is not enough to reduce injuries. If employee commitment is part of the equation, what would be the suggestion to increase this commitment?

    The study was interesting, but I was surprised to learn that training alone is not enough to reduce injuries. If employee commitment is part of the equation, what would be the suggestion to increase this commitment?

    Increasing motivation and commitment to safety are important topics in OSH. Many studies note that first displaying those elements from the top is critical—management has to take safety seriously and demonstrate that to employees—in essence management creates a work culture that values and prioritizes safety and health. Creating a work environment that facilitates and expects best practices in OSH, not just the minimum needed for compliance, should also help increase employee commitment to health and safety because employees will come to believe that management really cares about their wellbeing.

    It is my great pleasure to visit your website and to enjoy your excellent Blog Commenting Sites post here.
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    I know this is an older post but it is still critical in terms of health and safety. Was the effect of stress considered? I have also been reading the very old articles by Heinrich (domino theory) and Haddon (Haddon’s Matrix). Both have very useful information on health and safety. More recent work also considers why accidents do NOT occur and the human role in preventing problems which is perhaps not considered often enough.

    Each and every worker should know about basic safety knowledge. Company should spend money for worker’s safety training.

    When I read the report I was concerned that, like the Cochrane studies, it was setting the bar too high. I like how you put it in context. Training is necessary but not sufficient. The need for training of supervisors and management is critical. Thanks for this post.

    Outstanding way of explaining. You have described in detail step by step. It is so helpful. Thank you so much for sharing this useful information.

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