“Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course.” – Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book in A Series of Unfortunate Events

Training, by tradition, is boring. Necessary, important, potentially even life-saving, but often very boring. This is a problem because occupational health and safety regulations often depend on employers providing employees with appropriate training for potential hazards in the workplace. Look no further than the 270-page document by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) generously titled Training Requirements in OSHA Standards to see just how much training may be necessary at any given workplace. Required trainings range from providing a training program to employees who might be exposed to fall hazards, one of the most common types of occupational injuries, to training and education for all fire brigade members to the more mundane training needed on the use and care of hearing protectors for employees exposed to loud noises. The amount of training, although daunting in an itemized form, may not be such a problem for some institutions because they already have long-established training programs.

But if those established training programs are of the more traditional kind (i.e., boring), then are they effective? If the purpose of the regulations is for employers to mitigate occupational hazards by preparing employees to make decisions about their own health and safety under normal circumstances and when faced with safety emergencies, then it is extremely important that training programs are effective, or more specifically, that employees effectively learn. When there is evidence indicating that boredom reduces learning efficiency, there is room for concern. For example, research into higher failure rates of students in traditional lecture classes against those using active learning techniques suggests that we may not learn as much when we are bored. When Rapt Media performed a survey of 400 full-time employees at U.S. institutions with 2,000 or more employees, the results were that 74 percent of those surveyed said they had forgotten some, or all, of the last mandatory training they completed. These numbers are worrisome if the subject matter of the boredom-inducing training is something that will save an employee’s life or limb at a future time and date.

Want to know what isn’t boring though? Pokémon GO.

Now you may be wondering why a game that capitalizes on nostalgia from the second half of the 1990s is coming up in an article discussing serious occupational health and safety training; it’s a conceptual link to describe important technological developments that are making health and safety training not boring, or as we commonly call it, “fun.”

“If you need to make a difficult decision and you let someone else decide for you, you will regret it, no matter how it turns out.” – Pokémon quote, A Trainer on Route 104

If you are not familiar with it, Pokémon GO is an augmented reality application (app) built on Niantic’s Real World Gaming Platform and was launched in the summer of 2016. It is available globally for iOS and Android devices. The app allows players to hunt and capture imaginary creatures through their mobile smart devices as though the Pokémon were really in front of them. Why is this important? Because the app incentivizes participants who are people of all ages to play and explore the outdoors, which limited studies reveal may encourage increased physical activity too. While the internet quips about the game app becoming the next fitness tracker, Pokémon GO has been an incredible success for its creators because it cashes in on the enticing element of gaming: it actively engages participants in many different and dynamic ways, all without actually requiring humans to capture fanged and fire-breathing beasties. This includes using colorful and stimulating visuals, competition and collaboration among participants, and an award structure based on completing challenges. Simply put, it is a game and people want to play games. More importantly, people are willing to challenge themselves and are willing to do activities they might otherwise not do to interact with a game that merges what they know to be happening in a digital world with real world surroundings.

Not so surprisingly, gamification, which is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate people to achieve goals, is a common trick safety managers and trainers recommend using to keep employees alert and engaged during training sessions. However, many such tricks are often only engaging to the point that they use quizzes at the end of a training session or maybe at the end of a prepared video. The teaching component may not be very engaging or if it is interactive, not every worker on a team playing safety charades really takes the lesson to heart for future application. There may be rewards and accolades with correct answers, but again, the importance is not in how well the worker does in the confines of a classroom. The importance of the training to the employer, and one would hope to the employee, is how well the employee remembers and uses what they know when the time comes to protect themselves. Here’s where current technology trends could make training an experience that workers look forward to and therefore learn from.

Gamification makes Learning Interactive, Measurable and Effective

Simcoach Games is a company that is gamifying workforce training for manufacturers and construction companies, among other industries. The games are simple, but purposeful. Harness Hero is one such gaming app that teaches construction workers how to choose, inspect, and wear safety harnesses. It is free and players can download the Harness Hero app onto their mobile devices. The goal of the game is to reduce the significant portion of construction injuries and deaths that are caused by falls. The game is designed with short lengths of play, a series of challenges, and best of all for employers, tests to see if the player is learning. At the end of each mission, after the player has inspected the digitized equipment for flaws, the digital worker is pushed off a digital building. If the player did well, the digital worker is saved. If not…well, this is the great thing about digitizing occupational health and safety training: while the player gets to test themselves on their real life-saving knowledge with real scenarios presented to them, there is no risk of bodily harm.

That is the real advancement and seemingly the future of health and safety training: while employees are actively learning best practices for the myriad trainings employers must give to them, they can mess up a few times. Scary, but messing up in a virtual space means the employee can internalize that their safety really is in their hands. Employees can also practice until they get safety actions right. The best part could be that by turning training into a mobile gaming app, employees may even want to play, achieve new levels, and compete against fellow employees. Employers can also track the progress as their employees learn and practice in the Simcoach Skill Arcade and address those who aren’t advancing to assuage safety concerns before they move from the digital space to the work place.

Simcoach Games has already developed many safety-related games that employers can use for training purposes, including hazard identification training and electrical safety simulations. While more Simcoach Games training topics seem likely, it also looks like the interactive training arena is poised to expand rapidly. Simcoach Games is only one development inspired by a university project that saw the opportunity for going beyond entertainment and gamifying education. Simcoach Games is a project out of Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. 1,360 miles southwest of Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M University’s Leaning Interactive Visualization Experience (LIVE) Lab, a part of the College of Architecture’s Department of Visualization, employs arts and sciences graduate and undergraduate students  to research and develop educational experiences for schools, corporations, governments and nonprofits. Like Carnegie Mellon and Simcoach Games, Triseum is a company that grew out of the LIVE Lab and serves as an avenue for commercially distributing the experiential games the lab forges as it attracts more contracts for targeted game development.

Scary, but messing up in a virtual space means the employee can internalize that their safety really is in their hands.

New York State also sees the potential in applying games to various industries and in 2016, the state granted $1.3 million to three universities to develop digital gaming hubs to expand and innovate the gaming market. New York University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) now have the objective to create collaborative activities and communities that connect students, developers, entrepreneurs and industry to make groundbreaking games with the potential to change the gaming medium and expand its application. The purpose for the hubs is to incentivize game developers to apply their talents to other fields. It is possible, especially if approached by industries looking for effective training applications, that the hubs could develop more gaming engagement for health and safety training.

If visually stunning experiences on a mobile device or computer screen are not enough to get workers excited and learning, then like they say about the weather, just wait five minutes. It may be more like five to ten years, but the point is that technology, like the weather, changes quickly. Even more immersive simulation technologies than Pokémon GO and Harness Hero are developing and the concept of training players to make snap decisions under stressful circumstances is underway. On the other side of the country from the New York digital gaming hubs, the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) is researching and developing virtual reality experiences. The VHIL, led by Jeremy Bailenson who has a PhD in cognitive psychology, researches potential applications for virtual reality (VR) including how participants’ experiences in VR translate to their memory for tasks in the real world, which is important information if occupational health and safety training programs also develop in VR. While one 2012 study indicated that VR could be very useful for inspiring behavioral change in participants, the evidence also suggested that VR experiences may not be the best tool for participants to internalize express instructions. However, other developments are showing just how applicable VR training can be for decision making and how much money can be saved by using VR.

Strivr Labs, Bailenson’s commercial endeavor, is drawing inspiration from the original premise for VR, which was preparing military service members to operate under real world conditions without all the dangers and enormous expenses of war games. With these principles, Strivr Labs developed technology to “change the ways humans prepare” as the company’s website states. One major successful application out of Strivr Labs trains athletes to go through game day-like simulations where an athlete can practice decision-making under duress. Participants experience “self-efficacy” during the VR training sessions, which Bailenson describes as an accelerated sense of “I can do this,” or a belief that the VR participant can complete the action in real life that he or she is doing in VR.

The amount of money, time and lives that could be saved from the application of this technology to occupational health and safety training seems clear. If workers are trained through simulations that they experience as though they are real, and can virtually feel and see the actual hazards in the workplace, the employee can first, appreciate the severity of not taking safety steps to prevent a hazard and second, in a stressful situation such as during a chemical spill or facility fire, the employee will be more enabled to make decisions based on practice in VR simulation training. Reaching further into the potential use of the technology for training purposes, VR simulations could alter the program model for individual workers at facilities and their unique emergency response duties during an emergency, such as supervisors or machine operators during a facility fire.

Technology is Not Magic, Just Really Helpful

With the advances and ongoing, incentivized investment for broader applicability of digital gaming, VR, and the scalable approach of augmented reality from platforms that support games like Pokémon GO, the future of health and safety training could very well be less boring, potentially less costly, and much more effective in just a matter of years. The speed with which these technologies are developing and are applied to occupational health and safety training programs may only be limited to the interest that industries take in approaching or working with universities, entrepreneurs, and evolving digital hubs. The initial research into VR applications does suggest that the effects of VR education are longer lasting than watching a video, which may in the future have some companies rethinking their basic watch-video-take-quiz engagement strategies for mandatory safety training programs. Even so, digital gaming for all required training and VR in health and safety training is not currently universal or comprehensive, despite increasingly lower costs for producing content. Additionally, VR and digital games won’t replace all real-world training. Bailenson notes in an interview that VR training for athletes is about decision making under duress, so it is not a replacement for physical training. The athletes benefit from the mental repetitions VR simulations offer for actions they already know how to do from repeated physical practice but without the great expense of continued training with other players in a large real-world arena to gain the same decision-making practice.  

What to do until the future arrives?

Until the time when all training is virtually simulated for individual facility hazards, there are still numerous engagement techniques that companies can employ to improve stale training programs to make them more engaging and thus more effective. Using available digital games from Simcoach Games, for example, is useful, but remember the basic lessons to be taken away from Pokémon GO: competition, challenges and awards (real or virtual) incentivize people to get more out of an activity. The overall lesson is really that gamification increases attention and learning, regardless of the mechanism for its delivery. If you are not already using engaging or interactive teaching techniques in your health and safety training program, then try incorporating games, competitions and demonstrations. You can also see if your government recognizes achievements in health and safety with awards and then challenge your workers to attain the identified safety goals and take part in the company’s award.

Whatever you do, find inspiration in the Pokémon slogan, “Gotta catch ‘em all” and make sure you train all your employees to all the mandatory training requirements under the laws and regulations of your jurisdiction. Even if training isn’t as lively as an augmented reality game where players can capture wondrous Pokémon, the purpose of training is to protect workers from real dangers, reducing accidents that could result in injury, death, employer liability, agency investigation, and extensive time and money. Unlike in games, employees only get one life to save the Princess. Remaining compliant with regulatory training requirements is one way to help all employees achieve their goals of performing good work without injury.

Happy gaming!