Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of IFW magazine.

For hazmat training to be absorbed into the brain as both information and hands-on skills it has to be interesting and fun. How do you achieve that?  First, keep these factors in mind.

  • Determine why the students are attending hazmat training.
  • Recognize different ways people learn and use a variety of methods to each concepts.
  • Treat adult learners as people who are experience rich even if they have little knowledge of your topic.  Find ways to draw on their experiences.

Use all of the creativity you have to make hazmat training fun for the learner.  Use as many techniques as possible to help the learner retain hazmat information and skills for proper use in the rare moments when they will need to use them.  Remember to include instruction on ways to assure their safety around hazmat chemicals and releases!

First:  To discover why the students are attending hazmat training, ask students to share their experience in a hazardous materials situation and why they are taking the class. This discussion will help the instructor understand the needs of the students and identify ways to use their experiences in class discussion and examples.  Discover changes needed in class plans such as, adding examples or other material.

Hazmat class is different for emergency responders than for hazardous waste cleanup people. They each have different needs and focusses even though the training may still be very similar. In the emergency response field, the student may be required to have hazmat training as part of their initial firefighter training. Maybe the emergency responder has been promoted to a position on the hazmat team.

A student may be moving up to a new leadership position in the hazmat team or is focusing on training in a specialty area of hazmat response. Perhaps a student wants to become a hazmat instructor. Both the instructor and students will see the class as a success if it is built around the reasons why each person is attending the training and what the students’ expectations for their career.

Second: An instructor who understands how people learn can provide learning experiences that change their hazmat understanding from the first day of class through the rest of their lives. Studies over the years about how the five senses are used for learning repeatedly demonstrate that learning is increased when more than one of the five sense is involved in the learning experience.

The Oklahoma State University (OSU) International Fire Services Training Association (IFSTA) training manual called “The Fire and Emergency Service Instructor” provides good information on how people learn and the adult learner. People learn through five senses by the following percentages: 

  • seeing/visual – 83%,
  • hearing – 11%,
  • smelling – 3.5%.
  • touching – 1.5% 
  • and tasting – 1%. 

In every hazmat training program I have taught, there is plenty of learning through the senses of seeing, hearing and touching.  Not very much smelling and no tasting.  When you start combining the senses, learning or remembering goes way up.  Note these statistics: 

  • 10% of what they read,
  • 20% of what they hear,
  • 30% of what they see,
  • 50% what they see and hear together,
  • 70% of what they say or repeat,
  • 90% of what they say while they are doing what they are talking about. 

These numbers and percentages are very important to the instructor when they are preparing lesson plans, training plans and training presentations to maximize student learning and remembering!

Third:  An effective instructor applies characteristics of adult learners.  As students move from high school learning to collage or career learning their needs change. How they learn can change due to their needs and how learning fits into their lives. When developing and delivering adult learner training programs remember that adults:

  • Want to know information they can put to use right away.
  • Want information that will help move them ahead in their assigned jobs and possibly earn make more money.
  • Need information that will help their family.
  • Need real information, that will help them be a better person.
  • Don’t have time to waste, they have busy lives and schedules.
  • May only have a high school education (or less) and are now having to learn hazmat topics being taught at a college level.
  • Like to participate in the training program (discussions, hands-on, many activities).
  • Don’t like being treated like kids. They are adults and engage when they are respected as adults.

So when class starts, get right to the business of training and learning.  Think about yourself as a student in the class: how would you like to be treated, how would you like to be taught, what kinds of activities would you like to learn with, what activities would help you remember the information and skills your learning, and what you or how would you like the teacher to teach?  Create learning opportunities that adult learners will learn from and appreciate!

Fourth: Create many ways and ideas to help the learner learners.  This is where many ways of fun can be added to the training programs!  Fun learning/training ideas reinforce what the adult learner is learning.  Below is a list of ideas:

  • Create training related games such as matching a picture of a hazardous product to the appropriate identification practice.
  • Create training related work sheets and quizzes.
  • Create skill stations to practice hands-on learning activities.
  • Create simulation scenario activities.
  • Create team activities with a little amount of competition (don’t create serious “loser” events).
  • Provide some food/candy for awards in activity completions (remember about people that are diabetics or have nut allergies).
  • Create matching games and quizzes where all of the answers are there (some answers might be used twice, some might not be used at all, etc.).
  • For monitoring, place signs on the floor for simulated meter readings for decision making upon entry to a scene room or outdoor incident.
  • Makeup activities that require decision making in the classroom individually or in groups or teams.
  • Create hazmat incident paperwork that needs to be filled out by students for practice.
  • Learning about chemical hazards can be done by having students represent chemicals (those that rise must stay standing, those that sink can sit down, those that react with each other can’t be close to each other, etc.),
  • Create a game involving the hazards of industrial hygiene terminology and their meanings.
  • Assign or have the students pick a chemical or an old hazmat incident and do research so they can stand in front of the class to make a 5-minute presentation or so (not graded) on the chemical or incident, what did they learn in their research.  (Remember many adult learners do not like to talk in front of other people they do not know.)
  • Instead of having the students practice hands-on activities without chemical protective clothing or with full protective clothing, create suits that just have the front piece and window, sleeves and three sets of gloves to practice in.
  • Have the students create learning challenges. Developing the learning experience themselves reinforces what they have learned, and helps identify errors in their learning.
  • Bring in other hazmat instructors or industry experts to present.
  • Only show movies/videos that present a situation or demonstrate a skill or process students can observe and critique.

So go make hazmat training more fun for the adult learner student.  Your activities will help reinforce their learning, which is very important.  Hazmat knowledge and skills are not used as often as emergency medical and firefighting skills. Whether a first time learning experience or a refresher training, keep focused on your students’ needs, experiences and learning styles.