June 20, 2024


Science It Works

Game-Based Learning Applications For Safety and Health Training

I’ve been an environmental, health and safety professional for 19 years and have been providing training for nearly that long. As any health and safety trainer will tell you, communicating information about state or federal regulatory standards are not particularly fun. The challenge for trainers in our profession is to find ways to engage our trainees and to maintain their interest. If trainees are interested they participate and remember the material. If the memory and experience is strong enough, behavioral change takes place. That is ultimately what we are after-a worker who uses his/her knowledge to engage their mind and body; keeping themselves and others safe on the job.

Games have the power to engage trainees in this way, leading to those results. The fact that a properly constructed and implemented game can be an effective learning tool is not a secret. The concept of game-based learning has been around for about 10 years now and is gaining more and more attention. Many white papers describe increased retention rates with the use of a well thought-out game. In fact, the recently-formed organization called the Games for Learning Institute (G4LI) is a collaboration of collegiate institutions that looks at how video games can be integrated into formal learning for grade school children. The G4LI work should yield research results that are also applicable to adults. After all, what are adults but kids in big bodies? Video games aside-there is a wider implication for the effectiveness of games in general. For instance, I still remember several of the questions I missed in the Trivial Pursuit games that I played some 25 years ago. That is the power of a game-the information sticks with you as a result of a fun, and sometimes intense, activity.

Game Construction

There are several key elements to consider when selecting, constructing and using a game for training purposes. They include:

o Using Teams or Individual Participants:- team participation offers the opportunity for a collaboration of knowledge and “skill sets” to solve a problem. This fosters teamwork and does not alienate or single-out someone for a lack of knowledge. Teams also limit someone from “hiding-out in the back of the room”-they are accountable to their team. Be mindful to divide the group into fairly matched teams-you don’t want lop-sided victories. However, the advantage of one-on-one “game quiz” review-administered through the use of a classroom handheld “clicker” or on-line via a learning management system (LMS)–is that they allow for individual performance to be tracked and recorded.

o Are Your Questions Easy, Hard or Impossible:- the quality and level of difficulty of the content being covered must be selected carefully. If the questions are too easy or too difficult, participants check-out. It is a good practice to make sure you know a bit about those attending a training session and prepare the game accordingly. Are the participants novices in their knowledge or veterans in their vocation? A game that allows a progression of content from simple to difficult usually works well and offers a “little something for everyone”.

o Customizing Your Content:– game content should be reflective of and support the learning objectives and the training material covered. Having the flexibility to customize game content and other aspects of game-play is beneficial. Computer game programs offer that flexibility and add a bit of the real “look and feel” of game-show style games (i.e. “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, “Wheel of Fortune” or “Jeopardy”).

o Game-play Dynamics and You, the Host:- the host is responsible for preparing and managing game-play activities. This aspect is often overlooked and can make or break the game-play experience. A host lacking in energy and not willing to foster participation will result in a less than entertaining time. The host is responsible for the pace of game-play, being the “judge” in the event of a dispute and for ensuring that learning principles are reinforced (i.e. extended discussion on topics and reflection back on training completed).

o Game-Appeal:– chose a game that will meet the needs of (and appeal to) a variety of learning styles and requires the use of as many senses as possible. A “one-size-fits-all” approach is not a good idea. A game that demands physical activity (writing, raising a hand, ringing a bell, etc.) is a must. Offer “fabulous prizes” to the winners (and losers). The prizes don’t have to be fancy-it could be vendor supplied safety trinkets, candy bars labeled “think safe” or something funny from a dollar store.

o Purpose/Intent of Gaming:– have a clear objective and purpose for using a game. The use of a game prior to a training session allows the instructor to gauge the knowledge base of his/her trainees. The use of a game in the middle of a multiday event helps to break up the boredom and fosters participation. The use of the game at the end allows for an evaluation-how well did the students grasp the material (and how effective was the trainer at communicating the information)? In most cases games are used to review or refresh on covered content rather than introduce a subject. Although, the sky’s the limit, use your imagination!

Game Applications for Health and Safety Training

Whether you prefer the bells and whistles of a computer-aided games or something a little more low-tech, games should be created to suit your needs. Below are two examples of low-tech options used in the safety industry for training purposes. A higher-tech option is described in the case study.


The need for information to be properly communicated is critical to all aspects of field health and safety. This can include a spotter talking to a crane operator–describing where to raise and lower a 10-ton object–or a supervisor describing daily tasks and which safety precautions must be taken by the workers. The following exercise is an excellent low-tech option for teams of two and focuses on interpersonal communication skills. The exercise requires the use of Lego’s(TM).

With a common barrier between two participants, one describes a “structure” that is built, the other one cannot see it. The objective-to create the mirror image identical in shape, color and space. It’s no easy task unless one is listening and communicating properly. Words and terminology-but not hand-signals-can only be used.

Hazard Recognition:

The ability to recognize a hazardous condition and take appropriate action to correct that condition is at the core of a solid safety mindset. This recognition is a result of knowing safety standards and applying that knowledge to “train the eye”.

A series of photos are prepared (real or doctored) in which multiple hazards exist. The objective-identify all hazards. Photos are reviewed and participants write their answers down on a piece of paper. Participants then exchange papers and grade each other’s work. Twists on this activity include a team competition, timed for speed-offering extra points for those who can cite the regulatory standard being violated.

Game-based Learning-A Health and Safety Training Case Study

One of the more versatile features of games is that they can be used just about anywhere-from a formal classroom to a construction job-site trailer. Shell Oil is a large international company that performs oil and gas exploration and production in remote locations throughout the world. These activities are inherently dangerous with physical, mechanical and chemical hazards around every corner. The need to keep Shell’s employees safe, and the contractors they hire, is paramount to their success. Safety training is therefore a staple in many phases of their operations and is required for new employee orientation, periodically as a refresher and as corporate policies and procedures change. To improve upon the effectiveness of training, and achieve desired safety outcomes, Shell decided to introduce gaming activities into their safety training curriculum.

“We were looking for a way to better engage everyone involved in our safety training sessions” says Shelly Kuck, Safety Specialist for Shell Exploration & Production Co., Meeker, CO operations. “After some research we chose to use the HSLS computer gaming platform that allows us to blend OSHA regulatory content with our own policies and procedures”. The ability of a game to be customized to address specific learning objectives is important for achieving desired outcomes. For Shell that included the development of content related to their Management of Change policy-the control of transition to ensure error free (safe) continuity and compatibility. “We desired to blend Management of Change, Shell’s site specific safety policies and chemical safety into one gaming activity…a very unique challenge” says Kuck.

In most instances it is difficult to tie game-play activities, where information is reviewed to reinforce, to measurable safety outcomes (i.e. fewer injuries). Safety performance is a product of all aspects of a corporate safety program-where the whole is greater than sum of its parts. Nevertheless it is well established that a properly constructed and administered game results in a greater retention of content. The ability to review information in an entertaining way while incorporating team-building activities is almost always a crowd pleaser. “We got exactly what we wanted, engagement from people that typically sit back and don’t participate in our training sessions” said Kuck. “With this success, we will continue to develop and refine our gaming activities to meet our training objectives for our employees and contractors” added Kuck.

The Future of Game-based Learning

Moving into the future, I predict that game-based learning will grow even more and take on different applications. For instance, “serious games” are video-type gaming applications used for training purposes. These virtual world computer simulation games allow employees to interact with their work environments-preparing them for what they can expect to encounter in the real world. Such tools are now used in retail sales and allow employees to experience and manage confrontational customers, shop lifters, emergencies and other critical managerial activities. There is much optimism regarding the use of video games to train. These tools can no doubt have powerful physiological effects on the body-increased heart rate and respiration, sweating, etc. These types of experiences make lasting memories.


A well-constructed and implemented game offers an effective means of communicating information while having fun at the same time. No matter how complex the content-games are a seriously engaging way to get your trainees up to speed with any type of content. After all, the more critical the information-and all safety training is critical-the more important that trainees remember the content. Whether you are introducing material to just-on-the-job rookies, or refreshing veterans on regulatory information-games are an entertaining, effective and memorable addition to your training. Having trained for nearly 20 years, I’ve found that game-based learning activities do wonders to break up the monotony of classroom instruction and even give the trainees something to look forward to.