Virtual Reality: Helping Workers Learn Construction by Doing

VR scenarios keep workers engaged — and could pique millennials’ interest in construction careers.

Imagine a crane operator attempting to pick up a load of steel beams to deposit on an upper level of a high-rise building under construction. Suddenly, the load crashes 60 feet to the ground below. But no one is hurt, and no one is worried, because the crane operator is learning his craft — and making his mistakes — in a virtual world. 

Several construction firms are already using virtual reality (VR) for operator and safety training. An interactive VR program developed by Skanska in the United Kingdom teaches construction site supervisors how to inspect trenches, formwork and other temporary works on construction sites. The trainees don VR glasses and “walk” through a virtual jobsite, identifying problems such as a missing structural support and taking corrective action. Other team members can watch them interact with the VR environment on a video screen.

Bechtel has used a VR training program from Human Condition Safety to let workers practice potentially dangerous tasks, like unloading a beam from a crane, in the safety of a classroom. It has partnered with Industrial Training International on the development of a VR mobile crane simulator and is piloting this training at its Innovation Center in Houston.

United Rentals helped Serious Labs develop the aerial work platform simulation used in United Academy training. United Rentals and construction technology venture firm Brick and Mortar Ventures together invested $5 million in Serious Labs to help the company continue development of its VR training modules for heavy industry.

“This investment underscores our commitment to driving positive change in our industry through innovation,” said Jeffery Fenton, United Rentals’ senior vice president of business development. “Virtual reality can help our customers work more safely and with greater productivity — for example, VR simulation offers hands-on training that mirrors the operator experience on a construction or industrial site, and delivers it in a safe and controlled environment.”

Millennials in particular are likely to welcome this new type of training. A 2016 Future Workforce study from Dell and Intel found that 77 percent of millennials were willing to use VR or augmented reality (AR) products in their professional life; only 59 percent of non-millennials said they were. Almost one-quarter (23 percent) named “training on new skills in realistic virtual environments” as the aspect of work they’d be most interested in using the technology for.

VR, once the stuff of video games, is now becoming a practical, real-life tool that can help make a dangerous industry safer.