Does Class Size Really Matter? Worker Education And Training During And After The Pandemic.

This is the latest in a series of safety articles contributed by Joseph P. McGuire, PhD. This article is co-written by Lucas Simpson, BS, CS. Previous articles have also included contributions from Emily Haas, PhD, a research health scientist for NIOSH.

Looking back over the past 40 years, major changes have occurred in the aggregates mining industry. For example, environmental permitting has moved from minimal requirements with little opposition to being highly regulated and frequently contested; mining machines and aggregates plants have become much larger and, with the advancement of automation, they have become more efficient, productive and safer to operate.

However, during that same time frame, some things have changed very little. For example, 40 years ago Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Annual Refresher Training (ART) sessions were typically delivered face-to-face via lectures, overhead projection and 16-mm movies. Training in 1980 and the years that followed generally focused on teaching “hard skill” safety topics, based on regulatory requirements, to a large number of employees in each class.

In 2021, we still see MSHA Annual Refresher Training provided in the same manner. Lectures remain the primary delivery process. Overhead projectors were replaced by computers, PowerPoint slides and 16-mm films have given way to YouTube videos. 

Training continues to focus on the same “hard skill” safety topics and, while face-to-face classes remain the primary way miners are trained, online platforms are being used by some companies. Whether online platforms or face-to-face classes are used, training as many employees as possible at one time still tends to still be the goal.

Over the past 40 years, many efforts have resulted in changes that promote efficiency, innovation and increased production in many industries, including aggregates production. However, in the aggregates production industry, efforts to explore other training delivery processes and topics to foster a higher level of learning and encourage participants to become engaged have remained stagnant. 

Research has found “Clinging to MSHA training content and processes which have not changed … tends to do little to improve or change employee safety performance” and if “delivered by way of PowerPoint presentations, videos and lectures it usually encourages participants to remain passive or bored during the sessions and as a result, they will probably not learn or gain new information.”1

If company leaders truly want to ensure a higher level of safety performance, improve their safety culture or hope to get to “zero” incidents and injuries, perhaps they should ask themselves two questions: 

• If MSHA did not require eight hours of ART, would they continue doing it?
• Does current company culture perceive devoting an entire day to MSHA training to be an interruption to production?

A yes, maybe, or hesitation to answer these questions, might indicate that it is time to re-evaluate how annual MSHA Refresher Training is conducted at an operation and whether new options should be explored. When considering other options, decision makers have the opportunity to research different delivery methods and their impact on processes and knowledge retention. 

For instance, PowerPoints, lectures or reading to students only have a retention rate between 10% and 30%.2 Besides the modality of the training, the content should be reconsidered as well. It is equally important to develop safety education focusing on “soft skills” such as leadership and communication, in tandem with the same “hard skill” topics, while not required, are taught year-after-year. 

Finally, class size should be considered. If a company’s goal it to get MSHA training out of the way to minimize its impact on production, then by all means, get as many workers into the room as possible. But, if a company’s goal is to engage and develop its workers, providing training in small groups may be the better option.

The Future of Education

How to deliver required safety training to workers in 2022 and beyond remains a concern for many companies. Facilitators and trainers must consider how they can comply with training requirements and, at the same time, protect the health and safety of their employees. 

For example, is it better to deliver safety education face-to-face with workers in larger rooms to allow for a greater physical distance between them, or provide it using digital platforms? Depending on geographic, economic, and personal preferences, this answer is likely to change throughout the year. Conducting training during these uncertain times can be problematic at best. 

Typically, MSHA education or training has been delivered face-to-face by either company safety staff or outsourced to qualified instructors and institutions. However, MSHA allowed companies additional flexibility these past two years in using other delivery processes even though their workers may prefer to learn face-to-face. 

Consequently, many companies looked to virtual, online or e-learning delivery processes as a substitute for traditional classroom settings. From a compliance perspective, his increased flexibility has been helpful but, it is important to consider if training delivered by these processes is the most effective in terms of transmitting knowledge to workers. 

More specifically, does the training delivery process a company selects directly contribute to worker development, the company’s safety culture or help improve safety performance? 

This article reviews various trainings that were conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic and how the traditional classroom experience was altered to protect workers while avoiding a one-sided virtual setup. From these changes in the training logistics, positive observations were made about worker engagement, involvement and interaction in their safety and health education. 

So much so that some companies are changing their old training approaches to a more modern set up with smaller classes and shorter learning modules. This article outlines these experiences and lessons learned in answering the two questions below. 

1. Should the preferred face-to-face, traditional classroom experience be abandoned and primarily replaced by virtual, online or e-learning training delivery processes?
2. How is worker engagement, involvement and interaction in safety and health education or training affected by class size? 

First, an argument for traditional classroom training is discussed.

A Review of Virtual Education Experiences

Events of 2020 took educational and training in an unexpected direction. Overnight all academic institutions went from the traditional classroom to online or virtual learning. From that experience a great deal has been learned about using digital platforms as the only training delivery process. 

This has provided researchers with ample opportunities to study and assess the impact different delivery modalities on learning outcomes. In one unpublished study, 45 civil and construction engineering or construction management students from three Midwestern universities, after one year of virtual classes3, were asked to share and rate their learning experiences. Typical statements from these students included:

  • “I did not learn anything.”
  • “Not as good as face-to-face.”
  • “Missed the social part of class.”
  • “Could not ask a question or get answers when they were needed.”
  • “It was the waste of a year.”
  • “I could not attend labs and learn from hands-on activities.”
  • “I learned how to do enough to get by.”
  • “I failed a class for the first time in my life.”

Using a scale from 1 (Poor) to 7 (Very Good), the students were also asked to rate the value of their past year’s learning experience; the overall average rating was 2.3. Only two students, or 0.4%, indicated the virtual delivery process was tolerable; the remaining 96% of these students indicated it was not a good learning experience. 

Countless articles have reported on student anxiety, frustration and struggles to adapt to a 100% virtual environment. Examples of feedback shared in such articles is a student who said, “This is absolute hell for me. I wake up every day and dread what awaits me. I can’t sleep at night, even though I am desperately tired.”4

Others complained of issues such as inadequate internet coverage, limited IT equipment, and the lack of attention to interpersonal relationships and problem solving in a virtual setting. So, even though the world is able to pivot to virtual classes, Nikos Andriotis suggests, instructors still hold a firm spot in the training industry.4 

Specifically, he indicated, “Instructor-led, face-to-face training provides opportunities for learners to engage with a Subject Matter Expert and other learners. And class size has a major impact on these engagements.”5 

This moves us to a discussion of class size.

Reconsidering Class Size

Like the face-to-face versus virtual debate, discussions over class size and student-to-teacher ratios are nothing new. Even prior to the challenges of 2021, class sizes had been steadily increasing due to budgetary restrictions despite educators referencing the well-known benefits of smaller classes that outweigh the costs (National education association, 2019). 

One article mentioned that, as funding for public schools decreases, administrators are forced to cut teaching positions, which then results in larger class sizes.6 Along a similar vein, business and industry are trending toward larger class sizes to keep training costs down and minimize the temporary, but negative impact on production. 

As one author put it: “Training everyone at once, or dividing training sessions into groups, cuts down on the amount of time needed to get everyone up to speed … you’ll reduce the cost and return to other productive functions faster”.7

Although moving to larger class sizes or training more people per session in the workplace is more convenient and quicker, smaller classes appear to increase participant engagement and interaction. For example, smaller, face-to–face class sizes make it “easier for teachers or instructors to identify disengaged learners and subsequently reach out to remove barriers to learning that are holding them back.”6

Research on class size done by the University of Kansas’ Education Department demonstrated that training groups of two to four was an acceptable adaptation when complying with public health guidance compared to previous, large classroom designs.8

Their evaluations also found that, when increasing distance between students in bigger classrooms, “the distance was too great and the noise levels too high to interact in larger groups; conversations became more difficult as the noise level increased.”8 Instructors at the university experimented with different class sizes to compare student preferences and learning outcomes. They found that, when in groups of 25, where participant separation of more than 6 ft. was required, facilitating discussions between three or four students could be done but it was bit more difficult. 

Then, in larger classes of 45, where required spacing between them was 6 ft., it became almost impossible to facilitate any meaningful dialogue due to background noise and distance between students. In many cases it was hard for presenters and students to hear each other and ask or hear questions. 

This research seems to confirm that smaller class size does impact participants’ learning experiences. But it is not as well known whether instructor to student ratios work the same for public companies as in school classrooms. 

However, an article by Jacob Morgan reported that Amazon has a rule for meetings which might provide guidance on the best size for classes. It states, “If a team cannot be fed by two pizzas then that team is too large.”9 Their rational is quite simple; when you have more people involved, you have more communication, bureaucracy, chaos, and everything that slows things down. 

Morgan also suggested that smaller teams are more productive and engaged and offers several reasons via his research.9 His research on smaller class size found:

  • A Higher Level of Engagement: 42% of employees working at smaller companies were engaged at work versus only 30% at large companies.
  • The Ringelmann Effect: Is the tendency for individual members to become less productive as the size of a group increases.
  • Social Loafing: Individual effort decreases as the team size increases and it becomes harder to identify individual contributions and performance of each person. 
  • Relational Loss: Individuals feel the amount of support they get from others decreases as the size of the team increases.
  • The LEGO Study: A team comprised of two people accomplished a building task in 36 minutes whereas the team comprised of four people finished the task in 56 minutes.

Our Experience at Aggregates Operations

Although it may be hard to glean how the experiences of higher education institutions and billion-dollar technology companies may compare to aggregates operations, the concepts are quite transferable. 

For example, recent training experiences completed with aggregates operations, where multiple classes with a smaller number of students were completed, support this early research. See the previous Rock Products article10 for a full description of this training event. 

To briefly review here, face-to-face MSHA Annual Refresher Training sessions were delivered in late 2020 and early 2021 using small groups. These classes used interactive processes such as small group discussions, shared experiences, case studies, brief lectures and videos to reinforce the topics and activities. No PowerPoint presentations were used during any of these sessions.

After each class, surveys were provided to all workers from which 482 were completed and returned. The data generated by the surveys clearly indicated the participants preferred educational sessions be conducted face-to-face, in smaller groups (with 25 or fewer participants) and cover soft skill topics as a compliment to hard skill training focused on safety, and mobile equipment and plant operation. 

Based on this data, it appears educational sessions should try to be delivered face-to-face if it is possible to overcome current barriers. The survey data and comments from those who participated in these MSHA educational sessions, from October 2020 through March 2021, indicated that workers:

  • Preferred being in smaller rather than larger classes.
  • Felt more comfortable and willing to speak up in smaller classes.
  • Enjoyed being part of smaller groups where open discussions and the freedom to speak up are allowed.
  • Enjoyed small group discussions and exploring new safety topics rather than covering the “same old stuff” using lectures and PowerPoint Slides.

We also learned, when in small, face-to-face groups, it was easier to provide tailored feedback from each class and take things in a little different direction if one class indicated they found something harder or easier to learn. To that end, the class size did influence learning outcomes.

Although the primary benefits of small class size have been discussed, there are obvious disadvantages or concerns related to a reduced class size that are important to acknowledge. First, messages reach fewer workers in the same amount of time and more resources are required to complete the trainings. Additionally, sometimes in small classes, “groupthink” may inhibit workers challenging or debating one another. 

While there are both advantages and drawbacks to conducting face-to-face training in smaller sized classes, the advantages seem to outweigh the disadvantages. Yes, size matters!!!

Joseph McGuire, Ph.D. is an independent safety and health consultant ([email protected]) and Lucas Simpson, B.S. is a safety manager for Ash Grove Cement, a CRH Company ([email protected] ).

1. McGuire and Snead: “Getting Out of the Comfort Zone”, August 15, 2017
2. Klatt, B.: The Ultimate Training Workshop Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Leading Successful Workshops & Training Programs. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1999
3. Joe McGuire: Unpublished, 2021
4. Garbe, Uzeyir, Logan and Cook: “Point COVID-19 and Remote Learning: Experiences of Parents with Children during the Pandemic Amber”, 2021
5. Nikos Andriotis: “The Pros and Cons of Small ILT Classes”, March 25, 2019
6. Grace Chen: “Will Your Child Fail in a Larger Class”, June 25, 2019 
7. Amelia Jenkins: “The Advantages of Training Employees in Groups”
8. University of Kansas (2020). Teaching in socially distanced classrooms: Results of our experimentation in the classroom. Center for Teaching Excellence. January 1, 2021
9. Jacob Morgan: “Why Smaller Teams are Better Than Large Ones”, April 15, 2021
10. McGuire, J., Haas E.J., Simpson, L. A New Approach to Conducting Required Training: An interactive case example in the aggregates industry. Rock Products, March Issue, 35-39.

NIOSH Study a Warning to Noise-Exposed Workers

A new study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that more than half of noise-exposed workers didn’t use hearing protection “always” or “usually” when exposed to hazardous occupational noise. Hearing protection device (HPD) non-use was only measured in workers who reported exposure to noise on the job. The study was published online Oct. 1, 2021, in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

An estimated 22 million workers in the United States face exposure to hazardous noise at work each year. While fewer workers are exposed to noise in industries like Finance and Insurance, and Healthcare and Social Assistance, NIOSH researchers found some of the highest prevalence of HPD non-use among the exposed workers in these industries. Additionally, researchers found female workers, young workers (aged 18-25), and current smokers had a significantly higher prevalence of HPD non-use.

“Our findings regarding HPD non-use by gender and age group are consistent with previous studies,” said Elizabeth Masterson, PhD, research epidemiologist and study co-author. “However, no prior relationship between smoking and HPD non-use has been reported. Our study was the first to find a significant association between current smoking and HPD non-use.”

The study looked at 39,508 adult current workers from the 2007 and 2014 National Health Interview Surveys. These surveys asked participants about their HPD use and occupational noise exposure within the past year. Of the workers surveyed, 2,057 reported exposure to occupational noise during the previous 12 months in 2007 and 3,380 in 2014. Overall, between 2007 and 2014, the prevalence of HPD non-use did not change significantly.

Among all workers exposed to noise in 2014, researchers found the majority (53%) did not wear hearing protection consistently. Industries with the highest HPD non-use among noise-exposed workers included Accommodation and Food Services (90%), Health Care and Social Assistance (83%), and Education Services (82%). Additionally, some of the industries where noise is a well-recognized hazard, were found to have high prevalences of HPD non-use, including Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting (74%) and Construction (52%).

“The prevalence of HPD non-use remains high. Increasing worker awareness and providing training about the importance of proper and consistent use of HPDs can protect workers from the effects of hazardous noise” said Dr. Masterson. “In addition, we need to overcome barriers to HPD use by ensuring that workers have HPDs that are comfortable and do not overprotect from noise so they can hear speech and other important workplace signals.”

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