The variability in the way we work today has increased dramatically due to COVID-19. The ability to provide effective safety training to our employees has, consequently, become more challenging. 

If we are going to take the necessary time to train employees in safe work practices, we want the training to be meaningful, valuable and memorable so it can be put into practice.

Virtual reality technology, commonly referred to as VR, provides a platform to reach people in a new and exciting way. 

Although VR has been around since the early 1950’s, commercial availability and access is still in its developmental stages.

VR is, however, destined to become a major component of environmental, health and safety training programs in the near future. 

How It Works 

VR transforms the training environment from a more passive approach of traditional safety training to a dynamic hands-on learning experience. It was initially developed as a gaming product, but has quickly found a niche in the EHS training world. 

The graphics and virtual environments created in VR are realistic and engage your senses.

If pictures are worth a thousand words, immersion into the virtual training world must be worth a million.

If pictures are worth a thousand words, the immersion of a student into the virtual training world must be worth a million words. 

Under this method of training, students interact individually with the virtual environment. 

With each choice the student makes in VR, the training adjusts in real time. The feedback about their choice is immediate and can be either positive or negative.

Why Does It Stand Out?

There are countless benefits of using virtual reality technology. A typical training topic has a lot of information that needs to be conveyed to the student. 

We should recognize that each student learns in a different way. If we want the information we are presenting to be retained, we need to incorporate different learning methods to reach the greatest number of people. 

Learning methods are—visual, auditory, verbal, physical, logical, social and solitary.  

Some people learn better by seeing someone else demonstrate what is needed, while others can succeed by reading text. In a similar way, some learn better in a team atmosphere, where others learn best by themselves. Different topics may be better suited to having a discussion, while other topics are better demonstrated.

Students can not only hear and see the virtual environment, their actions can change the scenario.

VR integrates these learning models so students can not only hear and see the virtual environment, but their actions can change the scenario.

Students can learn from their mistakes and retry the task again without damaging equipment or injuring themselves or someone else in the process. 

This active learning method of VR is fully immersive and photorealistic. The VR environment incorporates visual, auditory, haptic and other sensory information to make the experience real and believable.

In this way, VR helps to make the abstract more concrete and helps the student visualize the relationships between multiple variables. 

Retention

Not only does it help reach a broader audience, VR also increases a student’s retention. They have physically experienced the consequences of their choices versus just hearing about it and thinking about the possible outcomes. 

VR allows users to explore a variety of environments that were not possible to explore previously because of their hazardous nature, or distance from the user. 

The technology allows the student to visualize and manipulate the abstract and interact with the environment as it changes based on the student’s responses. The physical reactions and sensory input generated by using VR training modules also leads to higher information retention. 

The physical reactions and sensory input generated by using VR training modules lead to higher information retention.

VR can be run independently by one person at a time or can be collaborative with multiple students and an instructor entering the space and interacting with each other. This can also be done remotely with the appropriate equipment. 

Student actions and scores can be recorded in real time for data analysis and identifying trends to direct future training and focus on those areas that need more attention. 

When all is said and done, using this technology can lead to increased job performance, reductions in on-the-job errors and lead to an improved safety culture.

What to Know

When starting a VR training program, make sure you do your homework. 

There are several software providers and a variety of VR headsets that are commercially available, and the number will continue to increase soon with an anticipated billion-dollar marketplace. 

Not all software works with all hardware and headsets, just like you cannot use a Nintendo game cartridge in a PlayStation console and vice versa. 

When starting a VR training program, make sure you do your homework.

While the list of training modules has been increasing with time, there are a standard set of modules available such as confined space, lock out/tag out, hazard recognition, and fall protection. 

One software developer may have a better confined space module while another may have a better fall protection module. 

Our experience has been that the software companies offering these modules are providing the content on a subscription basis.

Fees increase depending on the number of students, number of modules to access, and the length of the subscription. They can vary from three months to a year-long subscription. 

Not for Every Employee 

While VR is an exciting new tool for safety managers, there are some people who are not suited for using the technology for medical reasons. 

There have been rare circumstances where a user has experienced a health-related issue, such as a seizure, in response to participating in a VR training session. 

While VR is an exciting new tool, there are some people who are not suited for using the technology.

People who are sensitive to strobe lights as well as people with certain types of heart conditions may be adversely impacted by using the technology. 

Documented cases have been rare, but you should keep this in mind and make sure users are aware of the health warning.

I would also suggest limiting user time on the headsets to no longer more than 30 minutes.

Amazing Feedback

Seeing is believing when it comes to using VR technology for enhancing safety programs. 

At GZA, we have demonstrated our VR equipment to several conferences and businesses. The results have been nothing short of phenomenal. 

VR technology is truly a game changer for the EHS training field.

Anyone who has tried the demonstration has walked away excited about the experience. (Yes, I am describing a safety training session as exciting.)

Many users have since discussed the experience with their coworkers and are energized by what they have encountered. 

This excitement leads to other workers wanting to try VR technology and employees wanting to learn more. VR technology is truly a game changer for the EHS training field.


About the author: Christopher Mayne is a senior technical EHS specialist with Glastonbury-based GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc.