Virtual reality helps Exelon put safety first has been saved
Cover image by: Jim Slatton
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Exelon is the largest electric utility in the United States, with services in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. Rolling out safety training to crew members across such a large geographic area has always been a challenge.
In the event of high winds, snowstorms, or other inclement weather in their local geographic areas, Exelon employees need to be ready to respond to any emergency situations that might arise. However, employee training could take place only in fair weather conditions. Scheduling around the weather conditions across a large swath of the eastern United States was like threading a needle.
Recently in the Baltimore area, Exelon began using virtual reality (VR) to deliver training to workers, wherever and whenever they need it, in a safe environment.
“We’re trying to think about how to do training differently to make it more repeatable and available when our people have availability,” says Elizabeth O’Connor, vice president of Customer IT at Exelon.1
Electrical substations can be extremely dangerous places to work if you don’t know what you’re doing. Touching the wrong piece of equipment can give a powerful shock. Even standing near certain components can cause an arc that shocks the technician. Before they enter substations or work on any piece of energized equipment, workers need to know these risks and how to properly handle equipment to help ensure safety.
O’Connor says VR is a perfect fit for this kind of training because it immerses the user in the actual environment without any safety risks. Workers can physically go through the steps of powering down equipment before working on it, which helps build muscle memory and better prepares them to work in the field. This experience is a welcome enhancement to the manual-based training programs that already exist.
“If workers do it in VR, it becomes a habit so that when they get out in the field, the proper actions are automatic,” O’Connor says.
The team at Exelon has virtually replicated as much of a worker’s routine as possible, including how to properly put on personal protective equipment. The team has also virtually constructed whole facilities so that workers can get the sense of working in the actual environments. O’Connor says the goal is to replicate the feeling of operating in confined spaces.
O’Connor says she initially evaluated augmented reality tools alongside VR, but ultimately decided that VR does a better job of mimicking how it feels to actually work on a piece of equipment. It’s more efficient than in-person training and more effective than on-screen programs. And since the equipment at electrical substations is so dangerous, this kind of experience is invaluable.
“We view safety as paramount,” she says. “We don’t want people getting hurt, so we’d rather them make a mistake in virtual reality than out in the field.”
As with many trades, utilities are seeing more workers retiring than entering the profession. This presents a significant problem for companies such as Exelon, which are seeing decades of experience walk out the door. O’Connor says VR presents an opportunity to replicate a lot of that knowledge and help newer workers get up to speed faster by allowing them to practice specific actions multiple times in just minutes.
“It’s about bringing new people into the trade and, at the same time, helping them understand the power of the things they’re working on and how to do it safely,” O’Connor says.