Virtual reality (VR) is one of the many innovative technologies that is revolutionising training across sectors. By creating immersive, simulated environments, VR technology enables trainees to experience highly realistic situations and refine their responses and actions without real-world risks.
The physical and mental effects that such immersive training exercises can have on trainees can be profound. VR platforms can accurately replicate workplaces, environments, and people, allowing a perfect opportunity to get hands-on experience. Undertaking some of the most time-sensitive and crucial safety training drills, some involving hazardous equipment and situations, whilst not presenting themselves in danger.
This article explores why operations and facilities managers should consider deploying VR technology and enrolling it into their training programmes. Below you will find the key benefits and sector-specific examples of effective usage and how to earn employee buy-in from the outset.
How VR Improves Health and Safety Training
Virtual reality isn’t new in the scheme of things. Looking at the projected statistics for 2024, the VR and augmented reality (AR) market is expected to reach a valuation of just over $1.4 billion in the UK alone, and $2.12 billion by 2028.
Given how prolific the technology is when creating entertainment systems, training aids for sports like golf and tennis, architectural software, smart driving tech, tourism, and so on, the premise of VR is already well-known to many sectors.
Health and safety is more secular in the sense that it applies to almost any sector-specific job and workplace. With the automotive, healthcare, retail, property, recruitment, and education sectors (among others) already making proficient use of VR, many are well aware of the benefits it can bring.
Let’s look at how virtual reality can make a difference from a sector-agnostic perspective:
- It increases engagement and focus compared to classroom-based methods by fully immersing trainees in realistic 3D environments and situations. A PwC study found that 40% of learners saw improved confidence in learners who used VR over other methods, among other enhancements. This is an example of how VR can invariably lead to higher levels of knowledge retention, particularly for practical learners.
- VR provides more rigorous and hands-on practise by simulating hazardous situations and environments that would be too risky or challenging to replicate in real life. For example, operating heavy machinery, conducting life-altering NHS-approved medical procedures, or working at extreme heights.
- It enables highly tailored, detailed scenarios that are customised to the specific risks and contexts associated with different industries and jobs. VR programmes can be developed bespoke to particular firms and their teams, allowing them to explore beyond typical ‘cookie-cutter’ scenarios.
- It allows for controlled exposure to safety incidents and required responses, which enables safe skill-building via experiential learning. In highly regulated industries like healthcare and manufacturing, VR can allow for accurate assessments of fire responses and reactions, chemical leaks, or life-threatening medical emergencies.
- VR provides built-in granular performance data tracking and analytics to allow for more comprehensive, KPI-driven assessments. In turn, companies can identify precise knowledge or skill gaps and refine training accordingly.
Combined, these advantages lead to an overall improvement in health and safety capabilities and resilience across organisations. Workers gain improved hazard awareness, confidence in emergency procedures, and competence in risk mitigation strategies unique to their working environment before being actively deployed in their jobs.
Now let’s explore some specific examples of effective VR health and safety training applications from various sectors.
Workers in the construction and building sectors face numerous risks in their daily work, some situations of which involve putting themselves and their colleagues in danger.
With the help of VR, however, workers can obtain the necessary training and upskilling to safely experience and prepare for hazards commonly faced on construction sites and beyond.
- Operating heavy machinery and vehicles
- Working at heights on scaffolds, roofing, or ladders
- Testing reactions when facing moving or falling objects, awkward loads, or slippery surfaces
- Electrical hazards
- Excavation risks
It’s widely believed that construction teams demonstrate measurable improvements in hazard avoidance, rescue readiness and safety compliance after undergoing immersive VR training.
Fire and Rescue Services
Modern VR training systems allow firefighters and response teams to enter accurate virtual replicas of buildings and environments primed with different emergency scenarios. From full-scale building fires to isolated vehicle incidents, crews can improve collaboration and coordination in simulated responses. The VF4 360 model deployed by an East Midlands local authority is a shining example of how to convey important health and safety information using VR.
Teams can repeatedly practise optimal fire extinguishing techniques and safe victim removal processes to ensure the optimal procedure. Teams can also conduct vehicle collision and gas leak scenarios, using the VR tool, to simulate how the relevant testing and stabilisation steps should be followed.
The salient point remains; VR exposure allows teams to develop skills in realistic scenarios without putting themselves or others in danger. Real-world situations will, of course, be drastically different, but adequate preparation with the help of VR training allows for plenty of accurate contextual practice.
Healthcare and Laboratory Settings
For healthcare practitioners, VR facilitates the realistic and low-risk ‘rehearsal’ of important procedures in these controlled environments. Where patient and personal safety is vital, VR allows for the safe practice of intricate medical procedures, from hand washing and infection containment to surgery.
The safe handling of hazardous chemicals and the treatment of spillages can also be tested with the help of VR, and done in a way that does not compromise immediate worker or patient safety. The same can be extended to proper waste disposal procedures, the sealing of containers, and PPE.
In the same way that flight simulations offer pilots the ability to practise in a safe and controlled environment, it goes without saying that a real situation would look drastically different. Both are industries where life is regularly at stake, and VR empowers specialists to test not just their critical skills but safety compliance adherence as well.
Overcoming Limitations of VR-Based Safety Training
For organisations implementing VR, while the benefits clearly make it a worthwhile investment in risk reduction, there remain some limitations that still require consideration.
The upfront costs of bespoke VR software development and equipment can be high, but the long-term benefits you’ll witness will make the investment worth every penny. VR is also a regular cause of motion sickness from excessive use, but improvements and adjustments can always be made.
At a broader level, however, it’s important to recognise that VR situations are not – and should not be considered – 100% direct replicas of real-world scenarios. While VR training programmes can provide an accurate simulation of real hazards, the reality is always very different.
Therefore, facilities and operations managers should consider deploying VR as an asset to an existing, defined training regimen, not a like-for-like replacement. It’s vital that workers maintain the knowledge and skills to apply safety procedures in the real world, not just in a VR environment.
Despite this, while some limitations are evident, none drastically outweigh the immense advantages of VR training for significantly boosting workforce safety through highly engaging, tailored, consequence-free preparation.