INTRODUCTION

1. OJT is Commonly Used and Poorly Documented

The OSHA regulations governing General Industry and Construction workplaces include hundreds of employee safety training requirements.  Sophisticated safety managers know that many OSHA standards provide specific documentation requirements, such as forklift certifications or lockout-tagout periodic inspections.  Employers often run safety-specific training programs through their safety professionals and keep all required records through their safety department.

But almost every workplace utilizes on-the-job training (OJT) from operations staff, wherein experienced and knowledgeable employees explain the job to employees new to the role or task.  Basic OJT from a senior non-management employee or low-level supervisor typically covers topics such as how to perform the various tasks of the job and the recognized safe practices for doing so. OJT may be combined with a review of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), which include written instructions and even photographs of employees completing tasks.

2. Liability From Incomplete or Undocumented OJT

The OSHA standards do not mandate operational OJT of this nature or how it should be performed. OSHA regulations generally do not require written standard operating procedures. Nevertheless, employers face liability under OSHA’s General Duty Clause if they expose employees to a workplace with a recognized hazard that may result in serious injury or death. OSHA also maintains pour-over training regulations that recognize training as part-and-parcel of compliance with OSHA regulations.

Many accidents that OSHA investigates result from an employee failing to follow safety rules that were part of employee training.  During an OSHA inspection, OSHA’s procedures require it to document the elements of employee misconduct, one of which is training on the applicable safety rule. A common employer defense to citations is lack of employer knowledge that an employee would violate the safety rule, and/or employee misconduct.

When an OSHA inspection stems from a serious injury or accident, OSHA faces political pressure to issue citations rather than concluding that an employee knowingly violated a safety rule.  Training-related OSHA citations are extremely common, due to inadequate evidence of employee training and employees’ inability to remember or articulate specific training they received that may be relevant. The specific safety rule or safe practice at issue from the training may have been a quick comment among days or weeks of safety seminars and OJT. 

3. Well-Documented OJT Ensures Quality and Reduces Liability

OSHA is extremely document-driven, and the use of an OJT “checklist” or some digital equivalent can be extremely helpful for the defense of OSHA citations. Written OJT records provide contemporaneous written proof that training occurred.  Fuller documentation can ensure that OSHA knows what topics were covered, what specific safety measures were covered, and that the correct explanation was provided by the trainer.

Of course, a recognized risk in safety is that an OJT trainer does not cover all the topics, or explains them in an incorrect way. OJT documentation ensures that each trainer hits the same required topics each time, and that there is a record of doing so. In an setting where a non-manager is providing the OJT, documentation can be even more vital to ensure that training is consistent and up to management standards.

Because OJT is not required by the OSHA regulations, full documentation of that OJT is similarly not mandated, but a best practice is to document OJT on  safe work practices that have been vetted by operations, safety, and management. Of course, for many functions, such as maintenance, employees may perform thousands of tasks and documentation of OJT of all job tasks would not be possible.  Solutions can be written and digital.  A checklist can include short explanations of the required safe practices, to ensure that each topic is covered.  OJT documentation can also be incorporated into a formal certification and qualification program.  This program would list specific tasks required to be demonstrated by a qualified trainer and completed by the trainee under supervision of the qualified trainer before an employee receives authorization to complete work tasks alone. Many employers have both the qualified trainer and trainee sign off on training acknowledgments or each topic. Tablets and cloud-based acknowledgement systems can be helpful to ensure that the documents are created and retained.

4. OJT Reinforces Traditional Classroom Trainings by Embracing Adult Learning Needs

Successful workplace training programs acknowledge and incorporate learning needs specific to adult learners. Adult learners require practical and relevant learning topics in order to want to learn. OJT provides immediate and practical information and skills that employees can directly use in their working lives, this allows the employee to see that the subject matter and methods are relevant which increases motivation to learn. Adult learners also require involvement and active participation in order to learn more and the opportunity to use and practice their knowledge and skills to retain more information. OJT allows the trainee to put learned principles into practice, allowing trainees the opportunity to actually do what they learned and think through each step of the taught process as well as work through real-life problems. OJT also allows for real-time trainer to trainee feedback and coaching. These opportunities for active participation and direct interaction with the trainer during OJT increases the employee’s knowledge base and information retention. Most importantly, adult learners require reinforcement and repetition to learn best. Proven adult learning techniques includes activity-based learning, such as OJT, to solidify training topics outlined in the traditional classroom setting training.

5. Conclusion

Fuller documentation of OJT can ensure uniform and effective training.  It can reduce the risks of safety rule violations, injuries, and OSHA and other legal liabilities.  All the best written safety programs may still be ineffective at instilling the knowledge and skills needed for employees to do their work safely and avoid creating hazards that could result in accidents or injuries if an employer has not established a method to ensure awareness and understanding of work practices and concepts outlined in the written safety programs.

Adam R. Young is a partner in the Workplace Safety and Environmental Group in the Chicago office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. Mr. Young focuses on occupational safety and health, OSHA inspection management, employment, and OSHA retaliation. For more information on occupational safety and health and OSHA compliance, please contact Mr. Young at ayoung@seyfarth.com or (312) 460-5538.

Chrisy C. Walsh, MS, CIH, CSP is a Project Manager at Colden Corporation specializing in industrial hygiene, health and safety auditing, litigation support, ergonomic evaluation, and safety program development. She is well versed in occupational hazards and associated controls within numerous industries including the aviation, energy, healthcare, maritime, and manufacturing fields. Chrisy Walsh can be contacted at walsh@colden.com,  (860)-405-5978, or through the Colden Corporation website at www.colden.com.