Snapshot of Simulated Night Time Incident

High Fidelity Simulation: A New Training Tool to Improve Utility Safety

Nov. 2, 2017
Exciting advances in realistic training scenarios will be an important part of safety training in the future

I research safety and training topics every day and the last several months have been particularly enlightening, and I’ll add – even humbling.  I’ve met six people from different entities: two utilities, two vendors, one service provider, and one community college system, all of whom are advancing different aspects of safety and training.  I will cover two of them in this article and address the others in subsequent articles.  I’m certain that when implemented together, they will help us improve beyond our current safety performance plateau.

Monika Bay is the manager of business transformation, Safety Initiatives, at Baltimore Gas and Electric and is the first person I’d like to introduce in this article.  She specializes and focuses her work on those risk scenarios that can lead to serious injuries and fatalities. Monika’s approach to understanding and managing risk is built upon the fundamental principles that humans are fallible and that systems are not perfect. Risk is present due to the interrelatedness of systems and behaviors, so logically her targeted efforts to reduce risk and improve safety involve either system fixes or behavioral fixes, and sometimes both.  Her perspective is that most organizations tend to focus primarily on system fixes, yet the greatest potential for real breakthroughs actually lies in the behavioral arena.  She and her team have pioneered a unique and engaging method of examining how we think about risk mitigation and injury prevention.

Monika partnered with our second person of interest, Brian Doubinin from 3DInternet, a company focused on Interactive Simulations, Cinema-Grade e-learning, and 3D visualization.  You may recall that Brian’s company also produces a transformer wiring simulation that many of us use in our own internal training departments. 

Together they have created lifelike, engaging, and challenging jobsite scenarios that can be used for training on risk identification and mitigation.  Using cinema-grade graphics and near perfect fidelity to portray actual field conditions, Monika and Brian depict problematic situations. For example, having to perform heavy excavation within a busy city intersection to access a gas main 8 feet below the pavement and the often unanticipated events, such as a third-party vehicle driving through established barricades. These scenarios are designed as an attempt to provoke deep thinking – and learning – about techniques to anticipate various types of risk that can emerge suddenly and unexpectedly.  I recently watched this scenario at Brian’s booth at the rodeo in Kansas City, was immediately and fully engaged in the learning moment, and consequently asked Brian for Monika’s contact information in an effort to eagerly engage further.

During our discussion, Monika was kind enough to further describe how her risk intervention briefings are designed and conducted.  First, she shares how our brains work, particularly the distinction between System 1 (subconscious, automatic, fast) and System 2 (conscious, deliberate, slow) thinking.  Monika emphasizes the vulnerabilities that result from the way our brains are wired and lays out techniques and concepts that can be used to overcome those vulnerabilities. She then shares a highly realistic simulation (specific to BGE) of a hypothetical scenario to the group. The scenarios are then debriefed in a group setting. The audience is asked for their perspective and proposed actions given the scene.  This usually then leads to robust dialogue as answers and solutions are tested through the collective wisdom possessed by the group.

Monika has observed that the crews appreciate this method of learning much more than lecture. She said that seeing their real-world environment brought to life in such a clear and practical way is different, engaging and, at times, even appropriately funny. Monika added that the scenarios are customizable, ensuring that each scenario is independently relatable to gas, electric, distribution, transmission, or substation employees. She designs and scripts each scenario through collaboration with field employees from each of the respective areas, which further fuels the support and engagement from the field employees.

The scenarios are challenging enough to demand close attention.  She reiterated that the learning must be “sticky,” which means complex, wicked problems that are highly nuanced and accurately portrayed.  There can be no distracting inaccuracies.  A quick check of the literature reveals the actual learning science behind her requirement—the Neuro-leadership Institute indicates that four conditions are necessary for learning to occur:

  • Attention: the material must be interesting enough to maintain our focus for about 20 minutes, the maximum length for most adults. Monika’s scenarios are typically 6 to 8 minutes long, followed by a fully participative debriefing session. This novelty or interest requirement is easily met because the simulations are provocative, but still realistic.
  • Generation: student ownership of the learning content, such that their own thinking generates new thoughts, possibilities, and connections. This occurs when the student is motivated to understand, retain, and apply the new information.  The scenarios are taken from actual circumstances or a composite of events and are highly relevant to everyday work.
  • Emotional: the right amount of tension or excitement to build and maintain emotional engagement. This is part and parcel of anything to do with safety because of the trauma associated with accidents, injuries, and fatalities.
  • Spacing: providing time for the brain to digest new material, by learning in intervals over a period of days, weeks, and months. Monika’s insistence on “sticky” training ensures that students will be thinking of these scenarios long after the training event. I personally observed that there is a strong residual effect because the scenes have replayed in the back of my mind since the rodeo.

These learning conditions and the method of sticky learning bring to mind an additional, key requirement for behavior change – true insight.  This is the moment when an employee sees something they hadn’t seen before, or a new perception occurs, or, to be blunt, when an employee comes to the sudden conclusion, realization, or discovery that by practicing the techniques to overcome the vulnerabilities within our own brain’s wiring, they can better anticipate and manage the various risks that can emerge on the jobsite! Insight derived in a simulated environment allows many of us to gain the same insight that others had to gain through decades of experience, including near misses, close calls, and actual injuries.

Exciting advances in realistic training scenarios will be an important part of safety training in the future.  We’re thankful to both Monika and Brian for taking the time to share some of the details behind their approach.  Again, in subsequent articles, we’ll take on the promise of overlearning, the motivation created when we are required to demonstrate superior performance, and we’ll discuss when it makes sense to use simulation as a learning modality and when it does not.  Thanks for participating in our learning journey.  Please do share your perspectives and questions with us in the comment section below.

In Learning,

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!