Virtual Reality to Keep Construction Workers Safe

How can virtual reality keep construction workers safe? Mad*Pow worked with IRMI to create training using virtual reality to reduce injuries and deaths on the job.

Understanding the Drivers of Safe Behavior

Construction safety has improved significantly in the past few decades. The number of minor injuries has gone down. So why has the number of serious injuries and deaths on job sites stayed steady? IRMI, a premier authority and educator for risk management, insurance, and legal professionals, wanted to know - and change those numbers.

Mad*Pow began with research three design sites to learn how construction workers think about safety. One quick learning was that many workers take small risks that can lead to serious consequences. Often they don't realize how dangerous a small risk - like not wearing safety goggles - can be.

With that in mind, Mad*Pow built a design playbook. The playbook focused on virtual reality training, which gives workers a chance to see how risky behaviors play out.

Methodology: Creating a Playbook for Virtual Reality Safety Training

To create the playbook, Mad*Pow focused on behavior change. Mad*Pow’s Behavior Change Design team used a combination of observations and interviews to understand construction worker behavior in context. The team observed on-the-job behaviors at three construction sites. Each site was different:

  • A children’s hospital in the rural Southwest,
  • an industrial facility in the semi-rural South, and
  • a hotel on the urban West Coast.

Mad*Pow then interviewed a total of 41 construction workers and supervisors. They learned what risks workers take, and what they see their peers doing. The interview protocols were organized according to the COM-B model. As such, they included specific probes on issues of capability, opportunity, and motivation that impact worker behavior.

Next, Mad*Pow's Content Strategy team got involved. The playbook needed to consider how the construction workers would best learn. The team wrote a learning plan explaining how the COM-B model could be best implemented. They also created content for a virtual reality training module. The module, as a single example of the larger training program, focused on safety protocols while working at heights.

Key Insights: Communication Impacts Safety

Mad*Pow's Content Strategy and Behavior Change are used to working together to impact behavior. So it was fitting to work on a project where communication was the key to improved safety behaviors.

For the workers, a common source of safety risks was ineffective communication between workers and teams. Mad*Pow found that the teams’ culture played a large role here. If the culture was one of little communication, then workers were less likely to tell others if they saw poor safety.

Virtual Reality training can reinforce team culture expectations. Specifically, a culture of reminding one another to use safety equipment.

The Result: An Engaging Virtual Reality Experience

Mad*Pow created a learning module that accounts for several psychological factors influencing safety behaviors:

  • “Fast brain” dynamics. These include emotional and habit-driven responses.
  • “Slow brain” mechanisms. These include logic, but may be influenced by cognitive biases.
  • Underlying motivational phenomena. For example culture, identity, and values. All of these influence how people view the world subconsiously.

In order to touch all three aspects of worker psychology, the training is designed to do three things:

  • First, to expose and correct “below the surface” behavior influencers.
  • Next, to teach the slow brain to plan, prepare, and pause. This increases the chances of thinking about safety.
  • Lastly, to equip the fast brain with automatic responses and habits that prioritize safety. We do this through practice and repetition.

In the end, IRMI will be able to use their new VR modules for a long time to come. Mad*Pow looks forward to seeing safety behaviors rise.

Key Services

  • Research and Testing: Mad*Pow relied on research across three construction sites, with 41 workers and supervisors. In this way the team learned about conscious and unconscious behaviors that increase safety risks.
  • Behavior Change Design: This project relied on understanding the capability, opportunity, and motivations that impacted workers' behaviors.
  • Content Strategy: IRMI needed learning modules that made safety feel doable, and part of the culture. The team built a learning module to illustrate the true value of new behaviors.