We talk to training providers about how they have adapted essential courses to cope with social distancing.
In early March, as the rapidity of the spread of the coronavirus through Europe became clear, many UK employers swung into crisis mode, adapting and implementing contingency plans, curbing business travel and, as the government response ramped up, adjusting to the lockdown.
Outside of the medical and emergency services, where demand for specialist respiratory equipment courses spiked, few organisations had their minds on health and safety training. Specialist course providers began receiving calls asking to cancel or postpone sessions.
‘By mid-March, everything we had booked was on hold,’ says Paul Bizzell, operations director at RyderMarsh OCAID.
But it quickly became clear that the UK Health and Safety Executive was not offering employers dispensations from legal requirements during the pandemic, so the training hiatus could not last. Essential industries such as power generation, water supply and telecoms still needed operatives to work at height, in confined spaces or with heavy lifting equipment. With many employees self-isolating, companies in these essential sectors and their contractors could not always be sure of having enough staff who had been through the statutory courses.
To cope with this demand, specialist training providers have adapted their courses to the pandemic restrictions as best they could. Arco’s training division has moved some of its theory training online but has also opened its training centres for learners from the essential services, with precautions such as cohorting groups of trainees so they do not mix, checking trainees’ temperature on arrival and using only its larger training rooms so classes can maintain one-metre-plus gaps between people.
Paul has been adapting classroom sessions for RyderMarsh OCAID’s behavioural safety and accident investigation training courses. He is working out how to change the interactive components such as group exercises. ‘We can’t now say “Talk about what we have just said in groups of three and tell me what your conclusion is.” People will not be able to cluster for those breakout discussions – you can’t have four groups of people in a room having conversations when they are as far apart as they need to be, they will interfere with each other. He says there will probably have to be more reliance on the trainer asking learners a question and asking them to respond in turn.
Many statutory training courses for high-risk activities require a practical component hard to square with distancing requirements. Ben Haughton, technical director at Arco Professional Safety Services, says the company has worked course by course to limit the amount of hands-on work. ‘It is all about the end product: the competence of the candidate. If ensuring that means putting a bit more underpinning knowledge in and a bit less practical demonstration, then that’s the balance we’ll make.’
There are environmental and cost benefits to virtual learning. Why wouldn’t it become the future?
Where the physical element is essential, in height rescue training, for example, substituting anthropomorphic dummies for live volunteers has allowed the trainers to cut some proximity. Confined spaces training has been the most tricky to adapt, since in the medium- and high-risk confined spaces courses trainees have to occupy 1.2m diameter tunnels with instructors. ‘The candidate has to have the experience of working in a proper confined space,’ says Ben. Limiting the duration of the time spent in close proximity and providing PPE is the only answer. In all cases, equipment is immediately cleaned and quarantined after use.
While distancing requirements persist, the issue of managing proximity for hands-on training is likely to exercise more companies for in-house training. One engineering control that could be adapted for on-the-job training and supervision has been devised by servo manufacturer Control Techniques in Newtown, Mid Wales. The company’s staff have fabricated a full-body-height transparent screen on wheels with articulated panels that allows a maintenance technician or supervisor to stand beside a machine operator while separating the two.
Slight time lags between remote participants can make conversation less fluid than classroom training in person; limiting the class size can help. Martin suggests up to eight people. Ian Cooke, health, safety and sustainability area lead at Make UK recommends using virtual breakout rooms, allowing students to work on exercises in smaller groups.
Replicating classroom exercises and group work in this way is relatively easy online – some webinar platforms have built-in whiteboards and even on Zoom it can be simulated using a drawing or editing package. Arco’s Ben suggests incorporating quizzes on phone apps such as Cahoot into lessons. Variations will help reduce the risk of screen fatigue, but virtual classes should probably have longer breaks built in than face-to-face training. In other fields, companies are splitting courses into shorter sessions, for example running a two-day course as four half-day sessions.
Where courses do not involve a hands-on component, but still call for an element of interaction between trainer and trainees, some training providers have moved whole courses online, using software platforms such as Zoom and GoToWebinar.
IOSH’s support and advice to the training providers that offer its training courses includes advice on converting them to videoconferencing formats (see Resources).
These ‘virtual classrooms’ allow the trainees to join from anywhere they have a webcam and internet connection but give them the benefit of being able to ask live questions, talk to other learners and be tested on their progress.
Engineering employers’ body Make UK was already testing a virtual classroom arrangement before the UK’s lockdown and was able to switch to it quickly when the restrictions started. Management standards certification body NQA quickly repurposed its webinar platform to offer its courses on topics such as migration from OHSAS 18001 to ISO 45001. ‘We had to go from 0% to 100% in a week,’ says NQA training manager Martin Graham.
Virtual classrooms avoid the need for policing distancing, but come with their own set of requirements and etiquette. ‘What we don’t want is someone sitting in their front room with kids running round,’ says Ben. Trainees should be instructed to prepare in other ways. ‘Otherwise people jump on to the call a minute before [the session starts] and realise they have to download a load of software so they join the course 20 minutes late.’
Martin at NQA says that trainers running virtual sessions have to adapt their techniques: ‘You have to be more deliberate in your interaction with students. You can’t rely on a glance towards someone to get them to join in, so you have to use their names and ask more direct questions.’
Online training: Keep it up
During the coronavirus crisis, IOSH has been supporting members who provide its accredited training courses, such as Managing Safely and Working Safety, to keep trading. Those who have found it difficult to schedule classroom-based sessions are encouraged to switch their courses online. IOSH has issued guidance on best practice for running virtual classrooms (see Resources). The advice includes giving trainees advance information on system requirements and equipment needed, such as headsets, compatible internet browsers and minimum data connection speeds, and securing written commitment from learners not to use outside resources during online assessments.
IOSH has made all course assessment forms in PDF format editable so delegates can complete assessments remotely. It is currently working on making mock assessments and delegate feedback forms available in the same format.
To help keep up demand for trainers’ services, IOSH has continued to promote its courses to employers. ‘We know that at this critical time marketing budgets have been cut, so have continued to promote our products targeting business to ensure that health and safety training is recognised as essential to recovery,’ says Farah Khan, IOSH’s assistant category manager with responsibility for training.
For trainers struggling financially from the drop-off in demand, the institution can help in several ways, including longer-term payment options to ease cashflow problems, assistance from the Benevolent Fund and concessionary membership fees for member trainers in hardship.
‘The final thing we are working on is how we continue to raise the profile of the profession,’ says Farah. IOSH’s Returning Safely programme for businesses opening up and other resources are being promoted heavily to industry, she says. ‘All of this content is created to support our members and we are providing specific advice to training providers so they are clear on how these can be used as part of course delivery.’
Here to stay?
Many of the workarounds will be shed as soon as the curbs are fully relaxed, but there are early indications that some have proved their worth in other ways. Videoconferencing is likely to permanently displace a proportion of previous business travel, for example.
Height safety equipment specialist SpanSet adapted its work-at-height theory courses for virtual delivery as soon as lockdown started. Now the company is offering customers suitably distanced face-to-face classes again, but marketing manager Vinny Rai says the virtual offering is still popular: ‘The online courses were so successful when restrictions were strictest; the demand is still there for them now.’
‘It prevents people having to travel distances to train,’ says Ben of online classes. ‘There are environmental and cost benefits. Why wouldn’t that become the future?’
‘I can see us offering a blended approach in the future,’ says Martin. ‘People might do some e-learning in preparation, then a virtual classroom session, and perhaps for longer courses, attend a real classroom just for the day, for a practical session and an exam.’