Operator Telematics: Measuring a New Safety Culture

March 9, 2022
A new North American safety culture is being driven by a post-pandemic acceptance of technology. Virtual Reality (VR) Operator Telematics training data is one such innovation adding to that cultural shift.

By Melinda Zimmerman-Boehler; Photos by Serious Labs

In Amsterdam, golfer Teska Dinkla lowers a virtual reality (VR) headset over her eyes and practices her drive. The system collects data from her head movements and stance throughout her swing. It assesses, then analyzes the results so she can see precisely where her movements aren't quite right, and her training routine needs to be adjusted.

Years ago, professional athletes discovered the usefulness of the data made available through VR to correct, and improve, their movements. Being able to isolate and analyze their behavior and to be able to see how they could improve their performance is leading to greater success. VR is now being used to benefit competitors in the National Football League, NASCAR, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the Olympics, college sports and more.

But top athletes are not the only ones mining this technology for its data to train more effectively. Equipment operators who work at height are benefitting from this technology too, and that data is teeing up an opportunity beyond performance metrics. For equipment rental companies, it's an opportunity to change their approach to safety, and in a profitable way.

Breaking Down the Data

Over the years, VR has made its way into the access equipment world. VR mobile elevating work platform (MEWP) operator training simulators are used worldwide as measurement and instructional tools that quantify the risks an individual operator brings to the jobsite and provide analysis on how to address their lack of skills.

"Operator telematics" is a new term for the data that is used to create a predictive analysis of equipment operators to determine answers to questions such as: Is this operator a high-risk operator or a low-risk operator? Are they a confident operator? What MEWP operator skills are they good at, and what specific skills do they need to spend time improving?  Are they ready for challenging tasks, such as working where crushing and entrapment hazards are present?

Similar to a star athlete's training, that data can then be analyzed, and the operator’s movements can be refined and corrected for proper usage of the equipment.

VR equipment simulator company Serious Labs says its MEWP training simulator is 97 percent predictive of operator behavior on an actual MEWP. "What you see is what you get," says Wade Carson, senior director of product portfolio at Serious Labs.

"Our simulators have been designed to monitor the actions of the operator during a training session,” says Carson. “The operator telematics data that the simulators capture provides an operator profile in terms of skills, behaviors, safety, efficiency, and risk that the individual brings to any access equipment that they operate. Based on the operator profile, trainers and employers can make informed decisions on where to focus training to support and upskill that individual."

Color-Coding Competencies

A major global partner in the energy industry has been working with Serious Labs to use VR simulators for MEWP operator base training and competency checks. Recently, the company applied operator telematics data in a novel and effective way. Its staff assessed 150 contractors who needed to work at height during a routine shutdown at one of its facilities. By using the MEWP VR simulator, each operator underwent a 15-minute skills assessment, receiving a color-coded proficiency score corresponding to the appropriate work that was consistent with their assessed skill set. The labeling system created a risk management profile to quickly identify operator abilities, viewable by its management team through Serious Labs’ login portal.

Operators who were ranked to be "highly capable and safe" received a green sticker, meaning they could operate almost anywhere on the site without concern. If the sticker was yellow or orange, those categories determined the level of risk the operator brought. The ID badge with stickers remained with the operators for the duration of the work.

"The foreman checks the green, yellow, or orange sticker on the back of their ID badge and assigns them work at height based off of that proficiency skill rating," says Ryan Winterton, director of commercial operations, Serious Labs. "The process is established not to limit the work that someone is going to be doing, but to assign them work that's going to be most consistent with their skill sets, and the amount of risk that an operator may bring to a job site."

"It doesn't mean that those operators don't ever do more complicated work,” says Carson. “It means that their managers know that they need more upskilling to reduce risk and liability. They can be a master of their craft, but that doesn't make them an expert MEWP operator. And operators are also aware of their own level of skill and understand their capabilities and risks as well."

"Based on where operators rank in proficiency, their management team makes better decisions around applying tasks for those operators around high risk and low risk work environment. It makes it more efficient to allocate tasks for the workforce," says Winterton.

Insight for Rental Stores

According to Serious Labs, rental companies who provide training for industries such as construction, airlines, and energy plant facility could also benefit from the color-coding framework as a competency tool for their customer base.

"Any of a rental store's customers who need to understand where their operators' skills stand right now, or where they can be upskilled, can use this risk-management approach. The simulator can focus on the gaps in behaviors and skills and help the trainers understand where a workforce sits in terms of skills," says Carson.

"You are making sure that operators are being assigned work that is most consistent with their skill sets,” says Winterton. “Your good operators are going to have access to tighter confines, closer quarters. And your other operators are those that are going to be trusted in the more open environments. So even just that assessment and then assignment of work, that's an approach that should save employers money on repair and maintenance for equipment, work stoppages in the cases of incidents, and also lost time due to injuries."

The deployment of a simulator can be part of an onboarding of workers onto a new job site. Rental companies would start a conversation with the safety professional at the same time the discussion is underway for providing equipment for the upcoming project.

"You ideally want that simulator on site early so that you're able to assess the operators before they arrive, rather than being reactive once they're already doing the work," says Winterton.

“If a customer and their operators are more capable, more aware of the damage that they could be causing, that rental company doesn't have to have a tough conversation about the rental, or charging for a fix, or dealing with maintenance and repair, ultimately upsetting their customers who are important to them," says Carson. "All those things that affect the bottom line of a rental company can be mitigated by providing a tool that improves operator capabilities."

He also says it allows rental companies to change the conversation without changing any of the existing operations. The more intensive training package prepares that worker for work, and that renter to rent.

"Most of the rental companies we're talking to right now feel that there is an obligation to help ensure that the operators using the equipment are using it properly,” Carson says. “They don't want to just drop MEWPs off. Introducing the simulator can change the conversations with the end customer in a meaningful way."

Digitizing Safety Programs – a New Normal

The Safety Management in the Construction Industry 2021 SmartMarket Report shows that the construction industry is continuing to move towards a data-driven approach for managing safety, with younger talent bringing diverse skills, including adopting technology more quickly and collaborating digitally.

The report showed that 41 percent of small employers do not currently use data for their safety programs, but 96 percent of larger companies do. Overall, the share who expect to implement safety-related technologies in the next three years is more than double those who currently do.

According to Steve Jones, senior director of industry insights at Dodge Data & Analytics, despite new requirements and challenges that were brought about by having to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, contractors are still committed to their top safety practices. “They still see that making these investments has positive implications not only for their workers, but for their projects and their businesses."

The study emphasized that contractors are continuing their new safety practices and are benefitting from their use — including negotiating better insurance terms, improving their standing in the industry, and bringing in new work.

Technology Makes the Difference

Companies have been asking Serious Labs: How do I do the right thing by implementing a program that makes sense? How can I care about my workforce while also caring about my bottom line?

"That comes with the visibility into the gaps and capabilities of the workforce," says Carson. "Technology reveals a lot of the shortcomings in training as it stands right now, and there's some resistance to new technology because it is in fact very revealing."

Simulators as a tool provide visibility into where operators rank. The data provided by a simulator can prompt such questions as: Should those operators be working at height? Are there other tasks that could be assigned to them, that aren't at height? How do you put a training program together to get them to the level that they can operate that equipment?

"The simulator is not subjective,” Carson says. “You start, and you finish, and there's your score. And you're stack ranking those people. And as harsh as that sounds, it's really important. About 50 percent of the operators that are out there, while they are probably amazing welders, pipe fitters, and painters, can't operate a MEWP safely without some remedial training.

"The world is complacent, and until companies see a difference, or they see something tragic, or they believe, they're not going to make a change. Companies like our global energy partner are making a change. They see a difference. We’re glad to be providing the data that makes that possible.”

Melinda Zimmerman-Boehler is president of Lighthouse Communications.