March 5, 2020 | Lydia |

What Happens When Safety Training Meets Horror?

A startled man looks on in comedic terror at a severed cartoon hand

Why does most hand safety training fail?

Why do workers and managers file into a lecture, nod obediently, then go out and act as dangerously as before? Not put on their safety gloves. Not slide down safety guards.

Because the PowerPoint went too long? Because the speaker had no shop cred? Because no one asked workers for their safety advice? Well…yes.

But I see a deeper problem that at least some people are trying to solve.

Most safety training fails because it depends on logic instead of emotion. It tries to convey information instead of triggering behavioral change.

Study after study has shown that in the end, emotions change human behavior—not facts, not scary stats, and certainly not PowerPoint. Instinctively, we all know this to be true.


What one “training” has proven, throughout the ages, to create safer workplace behavior?  That’s easy to answer:

Suffering a serious on-the-job injury to one’s own body. Seeing a fellow worker’s hand crushed, up close. Hearing a cry of pain. Seeing actual blood. Hearing bones crack.

The emotions released at such moments sear “safety facts” into our memories. Attitudes change. Entire company cultures change—not just for workers, but for managers, too. Suddenly, people believe that injury is possible, that potentials can become actuals, that they and the people around them do not live in some mysterious bubble of invulnerability.

Sure, sometimes hearing first-person accounts or seeing horrifying photos can have a similar effect. But often it takes the physical experience of injury to fuse logic and emotion for real change. Only then, it seems, do most people start reliably doing annoying things like wearing safety gloves, following protocol, and using all the right safety guards.


For some years I’ve been watching the work of Dr. Matthew Hallowell at the University of Colorado. He and his grad students have done the deep research that proves everything I said above, but they’ve gone much further.

They’ve dreamt up ways to safely create the emotional experience of witnessing a horrible injury. And they’ve released their methods into the wild.

Hallowell has created a company, Safety Function, that manufactures “Live Demo” machines and gives on-site experiences to major companies—mostly in construction, and mostly focused on hand safety. He even gives away the plans for creating your own Live Demo machines.

His company motto? “Making Safety Real”.

Hyper-Real Dummy Hands Spurt Blood

To recreate the experience of personally witnessing an injury, the Hallowell team builds hyper-real dummy hands with artificial skin, blood vessels, and bones. These terrifying prosthetics cut like human hands, bleed like human hands, and crush exactly like human hands. The techniques are stolen from the medical industry and Hollywood special effects shops.

A picture of fake blood getting injected into a hyper-real dummy hand before a demo
Fake blood is injected into a hyper-real dummy hand before a demo

Hallowell’s “hands” are then affixed inside terrifying machines that precisely recreate actual injuries for a live audience. Watching one of these demos will make your heart skip a beat. Trust me, you will never forget the experience.

Having workers watch this in person, not just on a video, is crucial to the emotional impact. In person, it becomes real.

The Smasher

The Smasher, for example, drops a wooden skid often used for stacking pipes onto a dummy hand. The skid weighs just 45 pounds and it’s dropped only 18 inches, but the resulting pressure on the fingers is about 180 psi. That’s equivalent to being struck by a world-class hockey slapshot or having your hand run over by a Ford F150 truck.

A dummy hand is shown before it is smashed in a safety training video
Click image to view full Smasher video

You see the realistic hand crushed and hear the realistic finger bones crack.

Importantly, notes the demonstrator, wearing an appropriate impact-resistant glove could reduce the force of the impact by 1/50th! An injury might still occur, but far less seriously.

The Slicer

One of the most common cut injuries happens when a worker grasps a sharp object – like metal filings from cutting a pipe—without realizing how sharp it really is, or how easily a hand is sliced.

According to Safety Function, the forces at work are enormous.

If you reach down and grasp a sharp metal shaving with just the normal force of a firm handshake, the pressure can run to 16,000 psi—more concentrated than rock blasting! Even many Kevlar®-lined gloves cannot hold up against that kind of pressure. Only ANSI Level A5 cut-resistant gloves provide serious protection.

The Slicer Live Demo machine simulates exactly this situation: a sharp blade is drawn across the dummy hand at about the force of a handshake.

A dummy hand being sliced by a blade
Click image to view the full Slicer video

Then the demonstrators use the machine to cut through typical Kevlar liners and common leather gloves like butter. Fake blood gushes.

Click image to view the full Slicer video

In The Drop Column demo, a 1-kilogram chisel is dropped from 10 feet onto the dummy hand. The chisel goes right through and severs the radial artery to create a disabling injury. When the demo is repeated with appropriate impact-resistant gloves, the force is reduced by a stunning 98%. An injury might result—but far less.

Click image to view the full video

At this point, the team has created more than 20 reality-inducing Live Demos, all based on actual injuries.


“If you’re going to train people,” says Hallowell, “you need to know how to do so effectively. It’s not PowerPoint. It’s not pictures. It’s not old drunk driving videos. That stuff doesn’t work.”

One of the keys, he points out, is knowing how adults learn.

Unlike children, adults don’t go out to absorb information without a clear purpose. They have to see a problem. Only then will they go out to learn how to solve it. And without feeling that the threat is urgent, they just won’t care about the stuff you’re telling them. People who work with their hands are especially uninterested in mere lectures.

“Companies can come up with their own demos easily enough,” urges Hallowell. “I mean, they build stuff for a living. Why not build a demo, right?” On the website, companies can find downloadable plans for building most of the machines.

After the demo, the results are replayed in slow motion video, with excruciating details that could never be seen in a real-life injury. During the slowmo, the commentator talks about the physics, and describes what bones are being broken and arteries. The session ends with a group discussion—also essential to adult learning, because people want their opinions and expertise to count.

ConocoPhillips has used Safety Function Live Demos to train people worldwide, and Enbridge Pipelines has given the demos to over 12,000 workers in 900 sessions, with impressive results.


The future of safety training, says Hallowell, lies in creating these kinds of meaningful emotional responses. A response that will never be forgotten. After a session, he says, “We find people are more interested in safety, more likely to ask questions and seek information. Less likely to make assumptions. That’s what we are really targeting. It’s not the fleeting, ‘All right, I had my training, I’m out of here’ kind of mentality.”

Bottom line? “Making it real” really matters.

You can learn more at

Looking for more ways to liven up your safety training? Click here to learn the 10 secrets for creating exciting and effective safety training and meetings!

About Lydia
Content marketing specialist. I love tennis, dogs, and tacos... not necessarily in that order. Oh, and anything medieval.