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Royal Mail delivers safety training through virtual reality

At the Learning Technologies event in London, Royal Mail’s online learning manager talks about the organisation’s use of virtual reality to help postal workers avoid dog attacks

Royal Mail has started using virtual reality (VR) to train its postal workers about the dangers of dog attacks.

At the Learning Technologies event in London, James Barton, online learning manager at Royal Mail who runs group learning and development, said the VR training system not only addressed financial barriers faced by the department, but also helped to tackle cultural issues in the organisation whereby people don’t take anti-dog attack training seriously.

“We wanted to isolate those colleagues from the rest of the environment, because at the moment colleagues [are gathered] in a sorting room,” he said. “There’s no buffer between what you’ve been doing and the environment around you and the learning.”

The organisation, which has approximately 150,000 people, delivers to around 30 million addresses, which Barton pointed out means people walking up and down garden paths which could potentially bring them into contact with dogs.

The organisation saw an average of 44 dog attacks a week in 2018, but the training for avoiding these situations is traditionally delivered via a video on a plasma screen in a delivery office during a group scenario.

This one-to-many situation, which Barton said “isn’t ideal”, contributes to the “bravado that’s tied up in our operational culture” whereby people don’t want to be seen to be taking the training seriously, and don’t feel they can ask questions about it in front of others.

But having been attacked himself in 2010, and left with permanent scaring, Barton wants others to understand what the situation is like for all involved.

Not only does it leave postal workers injured and in danger, it also means the customer experience for those not yet delivered to that day is “absolutely awful” despite the fact most attacks usually come from workers “trying to do a customer a favour”.

“That’s where the risk comes from, and people really struggle to put their safety first when faced with a customer who they’re trying to do a favour for,” Barton said.

“The impact is really immediate, you think, ‘I was trying to do the customer a favour’, well what happens to the customer?”

Barton explained dog attacks on postal workers have become a huge part of “popular culture” – the meme of postmen running away from dogs is well known – which makes people take it less seriously.

“Over the years, it will be no surprise to know that we’ve tried to do lots of things about this, and we’ve tried pretty much everything going. We’ve done big public awareness campaigns,” he said.

“We’ve done lots of videos, brochures, booklets, slogans, cards, posters – anything you can possibly think of. We’ve had a relatively steady reduction in dog attacks, but we still have a around 2,275 a year, and that’s an awful lot.”

The organisation found there was also a large amount of “optimism bias” among its workers as many people watched the training materials, but believed it would never happen to them, or had not speculated what steps they would take if that situation arose.

“When a dog is about to attack you, everything goes into slow motion, you have a slight ‘oh dear’ moment and then you get bitten, there isn’t the chance to do anything,” said Barton.

While Barton joked he couldn’t take workers into a situation with real dogs to teach them the dangers, he wanted to work on creating a more “isolated” environment for the training which would both reduce the “banter” culture surrounding the training, and give workers more of an idea of what it’s like to be in a dog attack situation.

Using virtual reality software on smartphones combined with headsets to show users an immersive 360-degree view of potential scenarios, from encountering a dog in the street all the way up to a potential attack.

In each situation, users are given options about what action to take, then given feedback based on what they chose to do and what the outcome was likely to be.

There was also the matter of cash for the project. “We have to make every project and every penny count,” said Barton.

Barton’s team already had experience in filming training videos, and he said a 360-degree shoot wasn’t much different.

Since all regional safety personnel in the organisation are given a smartphone when they join, and 40% of colleagues were willing to use their own devices for the training, Barton said the “issue of IT hardware” and its potential cost was almost entirely eliminated.

The team developed a web-based responsive site to allow use on all devices, since some people may be viewing the training on a laptop.

“We weren’t issuing smartphones, we were relying on the smartphones that were already issued, so all I had to buy were a bunch of £20 VR headsets, and some headphones because people moaned when we didn’t send them headphones,” said Barton.

“That meant that I could send every one of our safety advisers a couple of kits across the country so we could pilot nationally.”

Although implementing new technologies without the assistance of the IT team is not advised, Barton did so until hitting a snag, during which the IT team were then happy to help. His team are now thinking about developing a support model for systems such as this.

While the system has only been in use since November 2018, it has been run 746 times and has been distributed to many of the high impact units in the organisation that are more likely to be at risk.

More than half of the units distributed to haven’t experienced a dog attack in that time, despite the Christmas period being one of the most likely times for an incident to occur due to the increased number of packages being delivered.

Barton joked: “We’re not used to things being disproportionately successful, we usually worry about things not being taken up.”

Royal Mail is not the only organisation focused on using VR and AR for training or other purposes – while some have used VR for customer research purposes, others such as Costa and Walmart have been using VR for staff learning.

Read more about VR technology

  • Tech giant Accenture has started using technologies such as augmented and virtual reality to make its hiring process less biased.
  • Broadcaster trialled virtual reality and ultra HD live streams of the FIFA World Cup in 2018 through BBC iPlayer and a dedicated VR app.

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