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Sewer maintenance company uses virtual reality for training

Thames Water contractor is recreating working conditions in a sewer to train future employees

Lanes Utilities is using virtual reality to prepare new recruits for the difficult working conditions they face managing thousands of miles of wastewater pipes for Thames Water.

The company has a wastewater network service contract with Thames Water and is responsible for looking after a 68,000-mile wastewater network that serves 15 million customers.

The organisation was experiencing a recruitment challenge because it could not take people into the sewers until they had been trained, so the training itself could not create the right environment.

Dean Hansford, head of logistics and network optimisation at Lanes Utilities, said that because of this, the company saw a lot of new recruits leave soon after joining. “We spend a lot of money recruiting people and training them, only to find out they really don’t like it once they are in a sewer,” he said.

“We went through a stage of having quite a high turnover of staff and many people left because they realised the work just wasn’t for them.”

Sewers are harsh environments, often requiring maintenance workers to use breathing apparatus and protective equipment. “It is a bit like going caving with added crustiness,” said Hansford.

It is also a confined space, and although workers can walk through large sewers, they have to crawl through smaller ones that are only 1.2 metres in diameter. “You have to put people through all their training before they can go into this environment,” said Hansford.

The company wanted to replicate the sewer environment early in the training programme to help recruits understand what is required and help it place people in appropriate roles.

“Traditionally, we have used a lot of PowerPoint, but it is hard for trainees to retain concentration,” said Hansford.

So Lanes decided to create a virtual environment that could accommodate groups of trainees, and commissioned UK technology company Igloo Vision to do so.

Immersive experience

Igloo created a cylinder, seven metres in diameter, that can hold about 15 people. It is fitted with five screens and surround sound, and is used for group training. Anything can be projected onto the cylinder’s walls to create an immersive, 360-degree experience.

The Igloo cylinder is located at a centre in Slough. There, groups are shown training films about best practice, recreations of a walk in a large sewer, and how to make escapes.

The facility can be used to recreate scenarios and give trainees the opportunity to solve problems. “It is dark and moody and you only see what the camera looks at, which is what you would see in the sewer,” said Hansford.

The training itself has become more digestible, with shorter, more interesting sessions, he added.

“In the past, you would see trainers struggling to get through their PowerPoint presentations in a day, but with the Igloo we do 35 to 40-minute sessions and people come out and have a coffee and talk about what they have done. You skip through the day, rather than dragging yourself through it.”

The cylinder was delivered in January and Lanes started using it in February after a production company had created training videos in a 360-degree format, which were integrated into the Igloo software. To date, about 150 new recruits have undergone training using the cylinder, as have a couple of hundred existing staff.

Hansford said the feedback from trainees had been positive and staff retention had improved. ................................................................ ....................................................................................

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