As managers and supervisors struggle to do more with less, they are discovering cross-training as an excellent tool to reduce costs, maintain high skill levels, and improve operational effectiveness. Increasingly, specialized employees are giving way to employees cross-trained to perform a variety of skilled trade functions. Cross-training enables supervisors to assign a single group of workers to perform tasks, which in the past, would have required two or three different skilled workers. This can translate to significant savings both in terms of reduced response times for emergent situations to cost savings from maintaining a smaller workforce.

However, cross-training has proven to be a double-edged sword. It can compromise safety instead of delivering promised benefits. Poor planning and assigning work that is too complex for cross-trained people to complete safely can instead have a dangerously opposite effect. Cost savings can quickly evaporate if losses due to accidents or equipment damage exceed the expected savings from using a multi-skilled or multi-crafts workforce. The challenge is to know when a cross-trained person can safely perform a task and when a specialist is needed.

Because management is charged with maintaining a safe and healthful workplace for its employees, they must be provided with sound risk-benefit information in order to know "when to say when" as it relates to using cross-trained workers. Normally, management looks to their safety and health staff to perform hazard analysis and offer recommendations regarding the safe use of cross-trained employees.

Although using cross-trained workers is a risk-benefit decision like any other in business, the unique challenge in this case is that management clearly understands the benefits of using multi-skilled workers and they will require highly persuasive information before they would be convinced to do otherwise. This paper will provide the safety professional with an understanding of the drivers for using cross-trained workers, guidance for properly assessing the associated risks and offer suggestions for influencing management to utilize cross-trained workers in a manner which does not result in unacceptable losses.

Why Cross-Train?

There are many sound reasons for using cross-trained workers but the main reason is financial. Simply stated, it costs more money to send two or three people to complete a job where one multi-skilled worker could accomplish the same thing. However, there are many other drivers for using cross-trained workers and they include:

  1. Improved response time for emergent situations

  2. Shortages of available skilled workers

  3. Decreased training costs from redundancies in training programs

  4. Increased job satisfaction for workers

  5. Increased productivity using multi-skilled workers

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