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Game Changer

VIRTUAL REALITY TRAINING TURNS MONOLOGUE INTO DIALOGUE

BY AUTUMN CAFIERO GIUSTI

It can be difficult for a construction worker to visualize what kinds of hazards they’ll face on a jobsite when they’re sitting in a conference room, watching training videos and slideshows. And it’s hard to know how a worker will react when faced with jobsite situations that require them to make a decision about their safety. Will they be aware of their surroundings and recognize the hazards in a real-world scenario?

Construction worker learning with Pepper Construction’s customized Virtual Reality Safety Training module. PHOTO COURTESY OF PEPPER CONSTRUCTION

Firms like Pepper Construction, a member of Chicagoland AGC and AGC-Indiana, are turning to virtual reality safety training to give workers a preview of what they will experience on site and practice the correct behaviors in a more realistic setting.

“Most construction workers are visual learners, and most safety training is lecture style at worst and conversational at best,” says Daniel Ruane, director of safety for Pepper Construction.

In 2019, Pepper developed its own virtual reality safety training module to simulate what it’s like to be on a jobsite in various safety scenarios. Wearing virtual reality headsets, workers get to “walk through” a realistic jobsite to face the kinds of hazards they might experience in real life, while practicing the kind of split-second decision making that can mean the difference between life and death.

“Real-time training is the best kind of training,” says Jennifer Suerth, vice president of technical services for Pepper Construction Illinois and Wisconsin. “We would never put someone into an unsafe condition purposely. Virtual reality training is the closest and safest way we can put someone in a fully immersive, realistic situation.”

WHEN SAFETY GETS REAL

More than half (58.6 percent) of the 1,008 construction worker fatalities in 2018 were caused by hazards the Occupational Safety and Health Administration refers to as the “Fatal Four” — falls, being struck by an object, electrocutions and incidents involving workers who are caught in or crushed by equipment or collapsing structures.

Falls, dropped objects, and strains and sprains — usually from material handling — are among the most frequent types of injuries Pepper identified while developing its training.

With the goal of avoiding those types of incidents, Pepper’s training process is designed to create a more interactive and collaborative session. The process consists of two parts. The first part includes a traditional presentation with an explanation of rules, expectations and company culture. Part two consists of the VR simulation and allows workers to walk through a realistic jobsite, much like one they will go to immediately after completing their training.

“Studies show that people react differently when they are immersed in something, versus just seeing it in a picture or video. This really provides that,” Suerth says.”

Pepper went through years of its own incident data to develop training scenarios specific to its own unique hazards and jobsite conditions. Trainees get a feel for what it’s like to work on the deck of a high-rise construction site, where a crane is hoisting large objects overhead and sheets of drywall fall from above without warning.

A key benefit of this kind of experiential training is the exchange of ideas that comes out of each session. “It sparks conversations and discussions, instead of just silently watching a PowerPoint and most likely only absorbing a small fraction of what was said,” Suerth says.

Those providing training use the VR sessions as an opportunity to discuss lessons learned, previous incidents and real-life hazards that workers might encounter, as well as how the company has planned for those hazards, Ruane says.

“It’s new, different and fun, so the participants’ attitude in the room really changes,” he says. “It creates more opportunity for dialogue than monologue.”

So far, about 20 people have participated in the training module, which the company is using for new hire safety orientations for its concrete division. “The reaction has been very positive,” Ruane says.

One participant, apprentice Karissa Nick, appreciated that the safety module was different from traditional training sessions. “While it still had the typical safety information, I really liked how it was more like real life,” Nick says. “The interactive ‘video game’ type experience helped me remember the information because you are actively involved in the presentation.”

A GAME-CHANGER FOR TRAINING

Pepper was introduced to the concept in 2018 through a project with Purdue University and MindForge, a division of the International Risk Management Institute. Purdue had been working to develop the first virtual reality simulation training for OSHA, and Pepper was able to help the university collaborate with MindForge, which was developing VR signaling safety training for the American Contractors Insurance Group’s Life-Saving Commitments initiative. American Contractors Insurance Group is a member of multiple AGC chapters.

Learning about virtual reality was a game changer. “Once I saw VR, it was obvious that it should and probably will be the future of safety training,” he says.

Ruane and Suerth had been brainstorming ways they could collaborate on a project, and virtual reality came up as a possibility. They quickly realized, however, that the VR modules on the market were created to address all jobsites across the industry and not specific enough to their company’s needs. So they held off on the idea.

About a year later, hiring new talent gave Pepper the resources it needed to develop its own VR module in house. Since the initial module would be geared toward concrete operations, Pepper tested out the module with the firm’s concrete superintendents to solicit feedback they later used to finish the module.

Developing the platform themselves allowed Pepper to base the scenarios on the company’s own safety metrics and create imagery recognizable on its own jobsites. Having its own proprietary module also allows Pepper to more quickly adjust the training to suit the company’s evolving needs.

“Maybe we learn something new or encounter a hazard on a job that we need to convey,” Ruane says. “We can incorporate it into our module ourselves.”

LESSONS LEARNED IN DEVELOPMENT

With new technology flooding the industry, it can be tempting for construction firms to want to follow the latest trends. Having a clear vision of what you want to get out of a new tool is essential for any company considering purchasing or adapting new technology, Suerth says.

“A lot of people fail because they are chasing the ‘cool’ factor — the shiny new toy — but don’t step back and ask themselves, ‘What problem does this solve?” she says.

Even after Pepper identified the benefits of VR for training, there were other hurdles to climb. Initially, Pepper didn’t have the resources to develop a module in-house, so the company waited a year until internal talent became available.

For firms that have settled on an objective but still need the resources to meet it, Ruane recommends that companies reach out to people inside and outside of their organization to find ways they might be able to collaborate. “You may not even be aware of the skillset of people within your company.”

If in-house resources don’t exist, a third-party consultant might help. “Try something small, prove the value, then grow from there,” Suerth says.

Key to rolling out any new idea is buy-in, Suerth says. While Pepper’s VR module was in development, Suerth and her colleagues brainstormed internally to create a product they could present to senior leadership. Then they held user-group meetings to solicit and incorporate feedback. “This way, when we did start rolling it out in the field, everyone knew what was coming, was part of the creation, and their managers supported it and didn’t give mixed messages,” Suerth says.

Once they had a version they felt represented what they wanted the final product to resemble, they tested the module with their concrete superintendents.

Looking ahead, plans are in the works for Pepper to expand its VR training to other parts of the company. The Pepper team just met to start working on a new VR module for its drywall division, and they envision creating modules for the company’s demolition division. A module for subcontractors is also on the firm’s wish list. “Our hope is this training will move the needle,” Suerth says.