How Important Is Documented, Up-to-Date Training?

Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop demonstrate competency.
Competency with a task means being able to perform that task correctly and safely, without direct supervision. Proficiency is a high level of competency. TCIA file photo courtesy of the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop, a TCIA corporate member company headquartered in Lincoln, Vermont, from a 2019 workshop.

If a safe workforce was a three-legged stool, one of those legs would have to be competency development. The other two legs are a right-minded workforce and safe tools and equipment. In this article, we’ll focus on competency development.

Competency development

Some people might call this first leg “training,” but since the desired outcome of training is competency development, we’re going to call it what it is.

Think of competency as a sliding scale. On the far left is the incompetent person – and that’s not a derogatory term, it just denotes a skills level. My granddaughter? Cute as a button, smart as a whip and totally incompetent with a chain saw. Similarly, you wouldn’t want me as your brain surgeon.
At the other end of this scale is proficiency or mastery.

In my mind, competency with a task means being able to perform that task correctly and safely, without direct supervision. Proficiency is a high level of competency, when situational awareness, enhanced with experience, gives the subject a strong ability to think critically and problem solve in unique situations.

Why is documentation of training and competency assessment so important? In terms of developing knowledge, test results can point to areas where knowledge is deficient. Likewise, low marks on a competency checklist can help the trainee home in on where their skills need the most development. The most important aspect of documentation is that it places any deficiencies in clear view of both trainer and trainee – objectively and unambiguously.

Blended learning and the flipped classroom

Individuals have different ways they learn best. We call these learning styles, with visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning being the main ones. Some learning models add a fourth: reading/writing.

Reading/writing learning is found mostly in academic settings, where the learner is taking in information and writing it down in their own words or in a way they know will enhance their retention.

The idea of a “blended-learning” approach to training recognizes that retention of a lesson can be greatly enhanced when learning styles are combined. Remember the wisdom of Confucius: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

Of course, it’s best to know your learners and instruct them in the way they learn best. But with a general audience of learners, the shotgun approach of blending written/verbal, visual and hands-on elements in your training is effective and practical.

A “flipped classroom” is structured around the idea that lecture or direct instruction is not highly effective, especially for adult learners more accustomed to experiential learning. Instead, with the flipped classroom, students assimilate the background knowledge they need before the training period, freeing their time with the instructor for activities involving discussion, motor-skill development and higher-order thinking.

I need to plug TCIA’s online learning courses, because they deliver that preparatory, classroom-learning content efficiently and in manageable doses, allowing trainers to maximize that all-important face time and hands-on experience with trainees. As a bonus, all TCIA’s online courses except EHAP have competency-assessment pieces baked into them.

Training and OSHA compliance

The essential elements of employee-competency development are the same as the essential elements of OSHA compliance:
You, the employer, must have a policy or procedure you want employees to follow.
You must ensure employees understand and can practice the procedure by training them.
Your responsibility is to assess employees’ competency in any safety-sensitive task before allowing them to perform that task without supervision.

You must ensure employees don’t lapse into noncompliance. As the employer, you do this through observation (inspection) and through retraining and/or disciplinary procedures, depending on the reason(s) for the noncompliance.

For OSHA compliance, documentation certainly helps the employer avoid or contest a citation, because it makes the compliance officer’s job of assessing the employer’s due diligence easier.

Imagine the uphill battle you’ll face if you have a compliance officer on site who has observed noncompliant employees or, worse yet, is investigating an accident that has just occurred. How could these things have occurred? Clearly, you couldn’t have provided effective training, and perhaps you provided no training at all! You have the burden of proving otherwise! OSHA may interview employees on site to gauge the extent of your training, and that’s when you might receive some very humbling feedback on how well your employees retained the knowledge and skills you thought you provided them!

The employer’s “general duty”

When Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the legislation created OSHA and enabled the new agency to begin adopting standards to protect workers.

Perhaps realizing that OSHA could never write enough standards to address every eventuality of worker safety and health, they inserted clause 5(a)(1), which has come to be known as the General Duty Clause.

This clause makes the employer responsible for everything OSHA hadn’t been able to address specifically through standards writing. It is the employer’s general duty to provide employment and a place of employment free of recognized hazards likely to cause employees harm.

OSHA can and, in our industry, frequently does turn to the General Duty Clause to levy citations. Our industry is something of a niche profession, and, as most of us are painfully aware, OSHA doesn’t have standards addressing many of the unique hazards we face. General Duty citations comprise something like 12% of all citations levied in tree care.

How does OSHA determine, or maybe more important, how do you determine what hazards should be recognized? General Duty citations typically invoke requirements found in the ANSI Z133 safety standard, a popular training program or even an operator’s manual as things the employer should have recognized.
By the way, General Duty citations are automatically considered “serious” violations, which means they carry heftier penalties.

Every other regulation that OSHA could throw at you is parroted in Z133 somewhere. If you follow the Z, you’re complying with OSHA for the most part.


So how do you train to protect your company against General Duty and other citations? How do you convince OSHA of your due diligence in training? Pretty simple; make sure your training content is consistent with Z133 requirements and make sure to document the training employees receive, as well as your assessment of their competency.

Having said all this about how to avoid citation through the way you train, let’s remember that the goal is to avoid that OSHA inspection in the first place. A safe workplace consists of the right employees, the right tools and the right training.

Peter Gerstenberger is senior vice president of industry support at TCIA. He’s been involved with the development or revision of most TCIA training programs and has served on the ANSI Z133 Committee for 20 years.

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