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Safety | Training with virtual reality

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Virtual reality could be the key to finding meaningful and engaging ways to deliver vital site safety information.

Serious accidents and fatalities in construction may have declined in recent years, but they do still happen. As a result, main contractors are faced with the challenge of finding a way to communicate essential safety information that people will engage with, and that will ensure they know how to prevent any activities causing them or their colleagues any harm.

The traditional technique is to provide a site induction for every new member of staff, operative or visitor when they first arrive at a site, augmented by regular – often daily – briefings and toolbox talks highlighting specific issues relating to current activities. The people delivering these briefings and inductions tend to rely on traditional communication methods: PowerPoint slides, perhaps a short video or some multiple choice questions.

Despite the best efforts and clearly good intentions of the presenters, these sessions often fail in their basic remit: to give site workers the necessary knowledge and tools to avoid preventable harm. And the problem is exacerbated by the fragmented nature of the industry and reliance on subcontractors, which mean that operatives frequently move between sites, receiving similar safety inductions. Not surprisingly, they stop listening after a while.

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The 360˚ film is completely immersive, transforming a training room into a live site

So how do you engage an audience of experienced site staff, managers and operatives with what is, after all, extremely important and potentially life-saving information? Galliford Try believes it might have the answer.

Virtual reality (VR) is nothing new in the construction and infrastructure sector. The arrival of high quality, mid-priced headsets that work with popular smartphone models has made the technology accessible to a wide range of individuals and organisations. It is not unusual now to be offered VR as a way of checking for clash detection, flying through a proposed building to see how it will look or to help design temporary works.

But in these examples, the content tends to be based on 3D models, so viewers find themselves in a computer-generated environment. Galliford Try wanted to use the technology in a slightly different way: to put the viewer as close as possible to a real world situation.

“We are seeing people use VR a lot in marketing,” explains the contractor’s group health, safety & sustainability director David White. “What we’re doing is taking the innovation of the technology and using it for real time learning.”

Film commissioned

The company commissioned a film, made using footage shot on four, 360° cameras and edited together to create a six minute long training video that is experienced using VR headsets and headphones. The film itself is based around the sort of event that could happen on almost any construction site: striking a buried service cable. It shows people in a variety of roles making choices and undertaking activities that eventually lead up to the event itself, as well as its aftermath.

If it had been made as a traditional 2D film, watched on a flat screen, it might not appear all that different to traditional safety videos showing how poor choices at all levels on site can lead to unsafe practices and a tragic outcome. But there are some key differences that make the film far more likely to succeed in its aim of engaging its audience.

The most palpable of these is the fact that it is a 360° film, which makes it completely immersive. With the headset on, you really do feel like you are right in the middle of the action; things are happening all around you, so whichever direction you look, you will see – and hear – a busy construction site.

“I think the real power of it is the immersion it gives you,” says White. “One of the age-old mantras of health and safety is that it is often a non-shared experience. You hear people saying: ‘If I could only tell you what happens.’ This is the closest you can get to putting people into that experience. The learning comes from my experience in that environment as opposed to how someone tells me I should feel.”

Cameras go where people can’t

“We can put the camera in places where you can’t put people, for example working under the bucket of a machine. It is a safe way of giving them exposure to risk and harm,” explains Shelley Stiles, partner at 360safeVR, the company behind the film and accompanying training.

The second factor that makes this different to other training videos is that it was filmed on a real site using real site staff and operatives to act out the events. Galliford Try’s Stanton Cross site in Northamptonshire provided the location for the film shoot, and operatives from its own workforce and subcontractors acted out the scenario (New Civil Engineer, November 2017).

“It was quite fun,” says Chris Seal, a banksman with Galliford Try’s fencing subcontractor ASB, who took part in the filming. “We didn’t have to learn any lines. They had an idea of the story, and we put together how we’d do it in real life.”

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With the headsets on, staff genuinely feel part of the action

The result is a film that is far more realistic in look and tone to anything that could have been done by actors, giving it a lot more credibility for the people who view it.

The initiative to make the film came from the Stanton Cross team, on one of its regular “step up to safety” days, after seeing a demonstration by the 360safeVR team. 360safeVR is a collaboration between Stiles, who is a health and safety consultant and director at 2020 SHE Solutions, and Liz Cunningham, content director of Forward Slash Films.

“We’re a film and video production company with a documentary background,” explains Cunningham.

“We’ve worked with Shelley producing traditional videos, and started talking about developing VR for safety training. We felt that the engagement you get with VR, and the feeling that you’re involved in the experience, could be used really powerfully in safety training. You can’t get that immersive impact in any other way.

Demo film first

“We did a demo film initially with another contractor, and once we had that demo, interest grew,” she adds. “But the fact that this is a Galliford Try film, with their own staff involved, gives it a sense of ownership and authenticity. If they went for off the shelf VR safety training, that would reduce the engagement and buy-in. This film is tailored specifically for them and their company and their environment.”

Stanton Cross project director Adam McAllister provided 360safe VR with the brief for the film, and helped to develop the storyline. “Part of the process of coming up with the storyboard was to make sure we could use it for different types of briefings and different scenarios,” he explains. The issue of buried services fitted that bill, because it would be relevant to many sites, and could be used to highlight a wide range of behaviours leading up to the event.

“When we first had the brief from Adam, it became apparent that we could make a film that would focus on any number of issues that lead up to this incident,” recalls Cunningham. “So we constructed a story around what behaviours we wanted to focus in on.

“For example, we start with an inadequate briefing, and then pick up all the other things along the way. It means you can skin it any number of ways in the training.

Construction stories with VR

“Using the [VR] technology gives you great scope for constructing stories around a specific safety need; getting an understanding of the factors that may lead to an incident, and creating real, genuine stories about how that can happen.”

Stiles adds: “Before you make the film you have to be really clear what are your key objectives or key behaviours and messages you want to include. That’s why time spent understanding that story, and designing and developing it, is so important.”

“The content is everything,” says White. “Buried services does translate to every site. You need it to be transferable, but not so generic that it doesn’t work.”

It took around 12 weeks to make the film and to develop the course content that goes alongside it, including a month to storyboard and another month to edit after filming. The film itself was shot in a day, using volunteers from the Galliford Try site team and its subcontractors, and paramedics from a private ambulance company, who responded exactly as if they had been called to that incident for real.

Real people, not actors

“The guys that did it were fantastic,” recalls Cunningham. “It’s a directing challenge, but we asked them to play themselves and ‘just do what you would do’. We refined it in rehearsal to make it as authentic as possible.”

The film is shown as part of a safety training session, with groups of up to eight people watching it simultaneously, via individual headsets and headphones. Then Stiles leads a discussion designed to pull out all the key points. Then they watch it again. “The discussion after they watch it the first time is about asking them what did they see – what safe things or unsafe things did they see,” Stiles explains. “Then I get them to discuss it as a group.”

“The second time through, they are looking for different things that other people have highlighted. Every group is different, so you get some people who are focused on one thing – for example the plant. The second time gives them a chance to digest it all.”

“We try to mix up the groups, so there will be managers, supervisors, operatives and machine operators,” explains McAllister, who has ensured that everyone working at Stanton Cross gets the training – operatives and management – as well as every new subcontractor whenever they come onto the job.

Te contractor wanted to get across the importance of good quality briefings at the start of a job; empowering and encouraging the workforce to challenge each other and have conversations about safety; and recognising change on site and being able to evaluate what that means from a safety point of view.

“This is about latent learning issues,” explains McAllister. “It shows that various people at various points can make decisions that could lead to an event, and to show that it could be anyone – and to get people to think.”




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