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Off the shelf

“Off-the-shelf manual handling training should become a thing of the past”, according to advice released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Is it a surprise for it to have taken so long to realise this?

There is an argument that much, maybe most, ‘off-the-shelf” training is ineffective, but it really does depend on what we mean by ‘off-the shelf’.

Sometimes employers want an accredited training course that comes with a test, a certificate, and a recognised status. For training courses like IOSH Managing Safely, or NEBOSH NGC, to name but two, this is very understandable in view of the investment.

For more specific, and shorter duration training, such as COSHH, or Manual Handling, the attraction can be just as strong. After all, Employers are shelling out for this, and might want a branded product that will stand up to audit. The trouble is, the more generic a course needs to be to meet the needs of a wide range of customers, the less specific (and hence relevant) it may become to any one customer’s needs.

There are some constant elements though, such as The Law, the biology of the human body, and the laws of physics (or maybe chemistry, if it’s COSHH we are focusing on). While some of the students ( we want them to be a bit more than just “attendees” don’t we?) will be interested to learn more about all of this content, for many people receiving training the knowledge required consists of understanding what that they need to do. This may include a clear appreciation of the hierarchy of Avoid, Mechanise, Assess, Reduce, - which is fine so long as the employer appreciates that once this cat is out of the bag employees aren’t just going to carry on as before while remembering to ‘bend their knees’. Workers are going to look at the possibilities of avoidance and mechanisation in a way that maybe wasn’t encouraged previously.

Once manual handling training starts to get task-specific the spotlight is on the existing safe systems of work. The well-used risk assessment tool based on TILE will focus on each risk factor in turn, and before long we have the possibility of the workforce deciding that there could be safer ways of doing the job.

Possible outcomes might be reduction in size of load, or the use of trolleys, or in relocating loading areas, or adjusting team size. In fact all of the elements that make up TILE are up for consideration, and we have the possible scenario in which the optimum conditions for manual handling could be in conflict with the existing way of doing the job. A cynic might say that the “bend the knees’ sort of manual handling training avoids this can of worms by avoiding asking the really difficult questions.

This potential conflict that can arise when “deep training” replaces “superficial training” doesn’t just apply to manual handling, and working with machinery or hazardous substances can throw up the same issues. There isn’t an easy solution that comes immediately into view, but training that originates from the workforce and work activities, using the expertise of a knowledgeable facilitator such as a supervisor or engaged manager, can avoid some of the pitfalls.

Toolbox talks have long been a way of delivering focussed site - or task-specific training, and when done well are truly interactive. When this interaction bears the promise of meaningful feedback to managers, for example, in adapting a safe system of work, or in changing the size of a container, or in relocating an activity, then training and consultation can become an integrated experience. The workforce are not always going to get the conditions they would prefer, but then management are not always going to get what they would like, and this is all within the context of the legal duties laid down in HSWA s2, and s7. Still, getting some of what you want is a lot better than being told to stick to the existing procedure, but remember to bend your knees.

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