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How VR Can Make the Workplace Measurably Safer

June 8, 2020
Immersive safety training can realistically simulate workplace scenarios.

Disabling injuries cost U.S. industries an estimated $1 billion in direct costs every week, according to OSHA data. In professions where inadequate safety procedures are a huge risk to the employee or customer, such as industrial assembly lines, quick-service restaurants and frontline utility work, it’s critical that employers ensure safety training is effective and accessible. Traditional workplace training usually takes one of two forms: classroom learning and on-the-job. However, recent research by Deloitte reveals that 36% of those new to the workforce feel they’ve been given the skills and knowledge they’ll need to thrive in their roles.

Fortunately, new training approaches that feature immersive technologies like virtual reality are demonstrating their ability to close the current gaps in workplace training.

Drawbacks of Traditional Classroom Training 

Safety procedures might be taught with a combination of classroom exercises and computer testing. For example, a factory employee might be taught how to identify and avoid workplace hazards in a classroom by watching a video, taking an online test, or studying a manual. This can be a scalable way to train large numbers of employees; however, the drawback is a comparable lack of effectiveness and knowledge retention.

More traditional learning techniques have proven less effective in many cases as they are not taught in a realistic environment and do not simulate the actual job being taught. Many learners also report a lack of interest and retention, while learning and development teams struggle with measuring learner engagement.

Traditional methods also lack the ability to give hands-on, real world experience in scenarios that are difficult to recreate. For workers in highly mechanical roles, such as airline technicians, classroom learning often is not an effective or engaging teaching style. If a technician’s job is to work hands-on with an aircraft, they’re not very likely to perform their jobs effectively on day one after sitting in a classroom reading a manual about working on an aircraft for eight hours.

Furthermore, traditional training methods and materials are a major business expense. In 2018, U.S. businesses reported spending $986 on average per learner. If you consider that Fortune 1000 companies employ about 35 million people, the costs begin to add up astronomically.

The vast majority of training hours were delivered with stand-and-deliver instructors in classroom settings, or through online or computer-based technologies. These methods don’t typically allow repetition training. Organizations also lack the data to understand the effectiveness of their training, despite significant spending per employee each year on traditional training methods.

Examples of expensive training and upskilling projects are frequent. Amazon made headlines in 2019 when it announced a decision to retrain some 100,000 workers, roughly a third of its workforce, at a cost of $700 million. Starbucks recently closed all of its stores nationwide for employee training, which led to an estimated $12 million in lost profits over the course of only a few hours of time.

Immersive Learning for Safety Training 

In Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends study, learning is listed as the top priority, with 84% of respondents reporting the need to rethink their workforce experience to improve productivity. For safety training in particular, effectiveness is key, and for many organizations, learners are not presented with engaging or effective opportunities to develop proper safety skills to be productive from day one on the job. The sweet spot for safety training is a method that is scalable, cost-effective and highly engaging. It’s called immersive learning.

Immersive learning is a virtual reality (VR)-based training approach that realistically simulates workplace scenarios, allowing learners to better engage with training beyond traditional teaching methods. This can help enable more effective safety practices across many job functions, including high-risk environments such as meat processing plants, airports and auto manufacturers. VR-based immersive learning also enables consistent delivery of training that is more accessible and scalable, providing continuous learning opportunities rather than a periodic refresher.

Leveraging VR, immersive learning drives behavioral change through strengthening the brain’s connections and translating learning to real-life job performance. Users are engaged visually, physically and verbally, which allows learning and development departments to adapt to a wider range of learning styles and a broader range of workers. Immersive learning can improve training outcomes and elevate the employee experience as they feel more prepared for their roles.

Today, businesses of all sizes—from Fortune 500 companies to regional plants—are using virtual reality to improve performance, reduce training times and boost operational efficiency. Using VR for learning is helping to spark real, positive behavior change on the job, and is delivering real business impact.

Putting VR to the Test 

No company today is exempt from safety risk, and many companies work diligently to mitigate that risk in the most effective way. In one of the most compelling examples, Verizon was looking to better protect and prepare its employees to deal with the threat of retail store robberies. At Verizon retail locations, high-value, state-of-the-art electronic devices are on display at all times, and employees needed to be prepared to deal with the threat of snatch-and-grabs and armed robberies. For the safety of everyone around, it was critical that store associates knew what to do when faced with such high-stakes, potentially dangerous situations.

Verizon traditionally had been doing a variety of classroom-type training and video training and was finding that leaders running the stores still did not have the confidence to deal with a real-life robbery situation. When faced with a robbery, they weren’t always remembering what they needed to do to ensure the safety of the employees and customers in the store.

The company decided to use virtual reality in order to provide a more realistic, immersive training course. Building on existing security camera footage from real in-store robberies, Verizon built training modules that simulated emergency situations at various points during a theoretical workday. Simulating these dramatic real-life robberies in virtual reality allowed store leaders to practice the proper responses in these high-stakes situations.

By measuring stress responses and things such as heart rate and head movement, Verizon was able to accurately analyze the results of these tests, and noticed a significant uptick in the confidence of their employees after dealing with a simulated robbery situation. After initially trialing the program, Verizon has now extended these VR-based immersive learning modules to its 22,000 frontline employees across all 1,600 Verizon stores in the U.S.

In another example, JetBlue airlines implemented immersive learning for its technician training. JetBlue is a major American airline known for low fares and great customer experience. The carrier’s 22,000 employees help make 1,000 daily flights possible for travelers around the world. Technicians are an important piece of the puzzle as they perform a variety of functions that keep the aircraft safe and secure.

Traditionally, hands-on technician training meant renting an aircraft from the operations arm of the company at significant cost. Then, once an aircraft was secured, technicians would need to travel to JetBlue University in Orlando, Fla. This also limited the number of times each worker could experience on-the-job training, especially if they were located at a busy hub far from the training campus.

When hundreds of people rely on your crews to get them around the world, speed and safety are critical. To improve its training procedures, JetBlue established training hubs in New York and Boston to teach safety and maintenance skills to its technicians in virtual reality. This saved technicians time (and the company money) while also reaching a greater number of workers. With immersive learning, students are dropped directly onto the jetway, their brains feeling as if they are standing in front of a JetBlue plane in real life.

Being able to move around and observe a life-like environment created a much more engaging learning experience than being at a desk or watching a video with the lights off. Rather than learning passively, students had the ability to interact with a lesson at their own pace, creating a personalized learning environment.

The Bottom Line 

Safety risk is a real challenge across nearly every industry. Whether it’s frontline retail employees exposed to robbery incidents, manufacturing workers operating potentially dangerous machinery, or hazard identification in the field, workforces face risk. To minimize liability issues, protect brand perception and, most critically, protect people, every organization stands to gain from going beyond traditional types of training.

Immersive learning offers a new and effective way to provide safety training programs at scale. It’s a model that allows employers to improve safety outcomes, increase preparedness, and boost employee performance while also significantly reducing cost. Over a million employees across safety-critical industries—including food processing, manufacturing, public utilities and logistics services—are already using immersive learning. Scalability, effectiveness and improved safety outcomes are some of the reasons why VR can help transform employee safety training.  

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