Over the past decade, a growing number of organisations have turned to online courses or e-learning to deliver OSH training.
As the technology has advanced, the e-learning trend has evolved, providing workers with new ways to learn and continue to develop professionally. With the aid of handheld technologies, the mobile worker in the field or at a remote site can access important safety data at the click of a button. Businesses can use this mobile or m-learning to build on previous training, providing handy "refreshers" periodically to remind workers of essential safety messages.
M-learning can help to reduce the likelihood of the injuries from causes such as slips, trips and falls, lifting and handling, being struck by objects and falls from height, that still cost organisations dearly in lost productivity and sick pay.
There is no need for research to provide evidence of personal use of mobiles to access information: it is all around us. Mobile phone ownership in UK households rose from 16% in 1996 to 95% in 2016.
As those phones have developed to include more computing functions, work use has accelerated; a. A mobile consumer survey carried out in the UK by consultancy Deloitte last year, which had 1,969 respondents, revealed that 50% used smartphones to perform at least one business-related work activity (email 44%, voice calls 34% and calendar management 23%).
This emphasises there is a growing reliance among the modern workforce on mobile technology rather than on desktop PCs. Provided with training that can be accessed by either device, employees can train when and where they want without being tied down to learning only at their desks. This flexibility can contribute to better engagement and higher completion levels as geographical and technological boundaries are removed.
M-learning has many advantages. To start with, the flexibility and accessibility it offers creates a 24/7, "anytime, anywhere" culture.
Importantly, for non-office-based field workers at many sites, who could really benefit from continual safety training, it allows safety content to be delivered straight to them. This also removes the need to coordinate a convenient date and location for a training session, round up the attendees, and it can be distributed to workers at several sites simultaneously.
The growth of cloud-based storage, the spread of free WiFi hotspots and increased transmission speeds in the fourth and fifth generation mobile networks allow a wealth of rich and dynamic content in the form of video and audio content to be delivered via mobile devices.
Through bite-sized modules, safety managers can channel important learning points on topics such as safety with electrical equipment at the point of the task. Short videos on hazards and controls are useful prompts to remind workers about the essentials. Infographics can be used to illustrate the operating procedures for equipment.
Without face-to-face contact with a tutor, employees may not ask important questions
Older training methods are time-consuming and costly to upgrade. Savings can be made by using shared online material, which can be updated quickly with no distribution costs.
Encouraging online interaction and collaboration between students and trainers can promote improved performance because it enables the users to work together regardless of location. Students can also personalise their training experiences by working at their own pace and level.
Both managers and employees can also glean real-time feedback and collate statistics on performance.
By using a learning management system that is mobile-enabled, managers are also able to run reports and track training on their own mobile devices, making the whole learning system completely portable.
However, the technology is not without its limitations.
Small screens, big issues?
From a visual perspective, the most immediate issue is the small screens on mobile devices. A study published in the BMC Ophthalmology journal (bit.ly/2fFbnPA) recommends that mobile screens should not be used for more than two hours at a time. Extended periods spent looking at mobile devices can lead to digital eye strain, dry-eye syndrome and headaches.
Small-screen devices may not be able to display all the material needed for some courses. Battery life, unexpected interruptions from incoming text messages and email and limited storage space may all shorten study time and productivity.
There is also the unavoidable issue of connectivity. Without a strong internet connection, the "anytime, anywhere" concept of m-learning, along with the ability to upload and download data, can be lost. Though most employees will carry smartphones, a minority may have opted for simpler phone-only devices. In such cases, they will need to be catered for separately or provided with a smartphone or tablet just to access the training.
In this sense, it's important to make a distinction between standard e-learning designed for a desktop or laptop and m-learning. M-learning can shine where instant access to bite-sized chunks of information is required.
With increasing mobile usage, security and privacy issues need careful consideration. Many organisations may have to improve their safety protocols, policies and procedures for networked applications due to an increased uptake of new users accessing the systems from their own devices.
Practical issues also determine the effectiveness of m-learning. Instructor-led courses or courses with a final hands-on assessment in areas such as first aid and manual handling may not translate well to mobile delivery with an online self-assessment module.
Additionally, not every learner is self-motivated. Being in a classroom with peers and in the presence of a tutor can maintain interest and motivation through social interaction. There is a risk that without the face-to-face contact with a tutor, employees may neglect to ask important questions. M-learning should be considered as part a blended training programme combined with instructor-led training.
In 2017, 6.5% of learners (over 12,000) took EssentialSkillz training courses on mobiles. A further 4.6% of users completed training on tablets.
The success of m-learning in OSH training will depend on the trainer's ability to deliver up to date, interactive and sector-specific training modules to multiple sites. High-risk industries such as construction will require developments in m-learning, but it may only work as a refresher in such sectors.
Millennials will make up a significant part of the future workforce. With their intuitive understanding of technology it is likely that this generation will redefine how employees work, learn and drive m-learning in the future. According to California-based networking firm Cisco, it is estimated that the US market for m-learning, worth $7.98bn (£5.64bn) in 2015 will increase more than fourfold to $37.6bn (£26.56bn) by 2020.
M-learning may help employees contribute to a safer working environment, but it is important to make sure that it's right for the type of training that needs to be delivered.