The dangers of skills erosion

People have been attending a four day course to get their first aid qualification, and then left to operate until the two day refresher – three years later! No monitoring of how often they used the skills took place and that could be considered dangerous, especially where there is very infrequent use of skills.

This rigid approach to learning a skill normally gives rise to situations where someone goes on training, gets the certificate and then may not have to use these skills until after training certificate has expired or beyond (and you’d be surprised at the number of people who are operating on an expired qualification).

If you acquire a skill and either don’t have the opportunity to practise it or don’t have the necessary support to learn to apply it effectively you could be in a situation where you’re qualified, but not competent in practice. We have all heard the phrase ‘use it or lose it’.

The new First Aid at Work regulations now state that the requirement for qualification is for people to attend an 18 hour qualification course, followed by an annual 12 hour requalification – not just a refresher programme. So there is recognition that, in a well-regulated workplace, there may be only rare occasions for a first aider to be called into action – and when that happens the first aider needs knowledge and information that is a lot less than three years old!

First Aid is just an example – this situation arises across the board where training is concerned, whether this is related to aspects of health and safety or even to more general subjects like management training.

If people have no opportunity to practise new skills they are very likely to ‘forget’ the details and be virtually operating blind when that particular skills is needed. When this relates to safety, that means putting people’s lives at risk.

However, the opposite is also true – if someone has learned a skill and it is in constant use they will usually be developing that skill to a high level. This will almost certainly extend its validity beyond any re-qualification deadline; not that we’re prescribing ignoring these – especially where there is a legal requirement. Two people, who have attended the same course and got the same qualification, may be operating at opposite ends of the competency spectrum 12 months later – simply because of the opportunity to apply and refine the skill in question.

There are plenty of creative ways to achieve a better situation than allowing skills to erode, including secondments, special projects and job swaps. Whatever the route to having competent personnel in your organisation to maintain a safe and healthy environment, a creative approach to improving skills, knowledge and experience has to be a huge leap in the right direction!