How to ensure safety, productivity, innovation via continuous training

Continuous learning is critical for plant engineers and operators and employers must invest in strong training programs to stay safe, efficient and competitive

By Bartholomew Jae November 30, 2023
Courtesy: NFPA

 

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the critical need for plant engineers’ continuous education.
  • Learn how training impacts safety, risk mitigation, efficiency and employee engagement.
  • Gain actionable insights on building innovative and effective education programming.

 

Training insights

  • There are several benefits to training new and existing employees, one of which is the vital task of safety.
  • Plant managers can conduct training sessions that reach across multiple generations and skill levels.

Plant engineers deal with challenging, dangerous and business-critical work daily, meaning continuous safety education is paramount. Training and development opportunities for plant engineers include diverse focus areas like life and electrical safety, fire alarm systems, emergency power supply, hazardous materials storage and management, combustible dusts, sprinkler systems and inspection, testing and maintenance.

Because of the job’s wide-ranging responsibilities, there is no shortage of areas for plant engineers to explore and deepen their knowledge for safety and undisrupted production. Furthermore, operators who rely on the engineer-designed safety systems and procedures also need continuous education to be vigilant.

Employees know they must invest in developing their skills to stay competitive, but the same goes for employers — especially amid labor shortages, heightened energy process and continued supply chain difficulties. Employers must allocate resources into training and upskilling employees to ensure the highest level of safety and productivity across plant operations.

By prioritizing employee development organizations can also better attract and retain talent, commit to exemplary performance and promote a culture of ongoing growth and safety.

Figure 1: Virtual learning tools enable plant engineers and operators to access knowledge quickly, collaboratively and at their own pace. Courtesy: NFPA

Figure 1: Virtual learning tools enable plant engineers and operators to access knowledge quickly, collaboratively and at their own pace. Courtesy: NFPA

Benefits of continuous training

A strong training and certifications program creates a trained and knowledgeable workforce, which in turn generates benefits across the business in terms of safety, productivity, cost effectiveness and employee morale. Key benefits of investing in employee education include:

  • Employee safety: This is the No. 1 reason employers should invest in continuous safety training and skills development. From chemical processing plants to power generation facilities, plant engineers work in environments with significant risks, including heavy machinery, chemical exposure and more. Frequent education ensures plant managers are up-to-date on critical safety procedures and have the knowledge to perform their jobs with as little margin for error as possible. This helps reduce the risk of employee illness or injury and creates a safer workplace overall.

  • Environmental and community risk mitigation: Hazardous materials and heavy machinery can pose a threat to the environment and surrounding communities when not handled safely. Training ensures plant engineers are up-to-date on risk management, emergency preparedness and best practices for handling and disposing potentially dangerous chemicals. This helps prevent spills and other incidents that could negatively impact the surrounding environment, residents and property. Plus, the fewer negative incidents that occur, the more businesses can safeguard their reputations and foster mutually beneficial trust with the local jurisdiction.

  • Increased efficiency and reduced costs. Accidents, equipment repair and downtime cost businesses money and hinder productivity. Employers may receive fines and citations if authorities with jurisdiction determine an accident was caused by noncompliance to codes and standards. Lack of regular inspection, testing and maintenance could also allow small problems to fester into costly ones. Proper education mitigates the risk of these things happening in the first place. Not only does it empower employees to feel more confident in their abilities and work efficiently to keep plant operations running smoothly, but training can teach them not to compromise safety. Well-designed safety systems and programs could also decrease insurance premiums and liability. In short, safety is a business imperative and training promotes continuous productivity, profitability and compliance.

  • Competitive hiring and retention. Employees are more likely to stay at a job that invests in their safety and professional development. In a difficult hiring landscape organizations can leverage their training and career growth offerings to attract high-quality talent and retain current employees. We’re in a world where everything is disrupted at the speed of innovation and continuous education will help improve employer and employee credibility and relevance amid rapidly changing hazards and safety.

How to build employee-centric training and education initiatives

Figure 2: Hazardous material storage is one of the many risks plant engineers can encounter on the job, making early and frequent training paramount. Courtesy: NFPA

Figure 2: Hazardous material storage is one of the many risks plant engineers can encounter on the job, making early and frequent training paramount. Courtesy: NFPA

The words “training” and “education” can stir up a negative connotation for some. Our brains often revert to the stressful test-taking days of our youth or to dull PowerPoints full of irrelevant information that won’t be used on the job. But training, specifically technical training for engineers and operators, has come a long way and there are plenty of opportunities to integrate new modalities and technologies that get people excited to take their skillset to the next level.

Below are four tips for creating continuing education programming that not only achieves its purpose, but keeps employees engaged.

  1. Invest in flexible learning modalities: In-person training is effective and important in many contexts, but in today’s digital age, there’s also great benefit in leveraging flexible online learning formats. In fact, live and on-demand virtual formats are the most popular form of training among today’s skilled trade professionals. In addition to being cost-effective, digital training increases access and allows employees far and wide to take a flexible, self-paced approach to learning, which can reduce burnout and promote sharper information retention.

  2. Explore emerging digital tools: An NFPA industry survey found that 68% of respondents want to work with nontraditional, innovative tools on the job site, while 17% find a lack of such job-enabling tools to be their biggest challenge on the job. There are several ways plant managers can integrate digital transformation into their training and certifications initiatives beyond standard online classes. Emerging formats include mobile and microlearning, social learning, immersive “gamification,” virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality. For example, with a VR headset, plant engineers can simulate electrical systems work or machinery repair without the risk. This not only makes learning safer and reduces training costs for the facility, but also gives employees the chance to work alongside exciting new technologies.

  3. Cater to age cohorts, but don’t stereotype: Learning isn’t one-size-fits-all. For the first time in history, there are five generations in the workforce, each with stereotyped learning preferences. Employers should personalize training models to specific cohorts’ learning preferences to the best of their ability, but it’s important not to stereotype. there are plenty of Generation Z engineers who prefer traditional, in-person learning and plenty of baby boomers who are enthusiastic about incorporating gamification into training. Therefore, it’s critical to communicate with employees to gauge preferences and elicit feedback.

  4. When hiring, lead with professional development opportunities: Today’s candidates have high standards of what they want out of their experience with a company. They also have shorter attention spans than ever. That makes it critical for employers to tout their training and continuing education initiatives at the beginning of the recruitment and hiring processes. It’s important that candidates know their employer will invest in their continued career progression and safety.

Plant engineering and operation is no simple job and continuous training is the bedrock of a safe and sustainable future. By investing in ongoing education organizations not only ensure the well-being of their employees in high-risk environments but also mitigate environmental and community risks and sustain profitability. Furthermore, these initiatives enhance competitive hiring and retention, a crucial factor in today’s labor market.

Embracing flexible learning modalities and emerging digital tools, tailoring training approaches to individual preferences and emphasizing professional development during recruitment all contribute to building program that creates a more skilled, safe and resilient workforce.


Author Bio: Bartholomew Jae is Director of Education & Development at NFPA. He has nearly 30 years of experience helping companies develop their leaders, talent and organization.