The (Virtual) reality of Safety at Thames Water– using VR to manage ER

by Laura Aucott

I think it is fair to say that the safety world has been accused in the past of being slow to embrace technology, but this is categorically not the case at Thames Water, the subject of our latest Safety case study. With a litany of technologically advanced projects in the pipeline focusing on training, wellbeing, compliance and more, Thames Water are certainly ensuring that they are at the forefront of both the safety, and the tech world.

Recently HSE Recruitment had the pleasure of being invited onto site with Karl Simons, Head of Health, Safety, Security and Wellbeing at Thames Water – to experience first hand some of the amazing innovations being put into place across the company.

Karl has been with Thames Water now for nearly five years, and his passion for the company and Safety is apparent in everything he says and does – and this combined with the same enthusiasm from the Chief Executive means that Karl has the ability to really push the boundaries of Safety, and to try things that haven’t been utilised in this capacity before.

The focus of our April visit was on the Virtual Reality/immersive training currently being rolled out within the company – both from a safety and wellbeing perspective. Thames Water have been working on the development on a training programme utilising this technology meaning they have purchased the hardware (scripting and ideas) as well as being involved in the development of the software, moving virtual reality away from the animation side into more realistic live video type software.


"The idea behind the virtual reality system is to really put people into the position of someone suffering with a mental illness, or mental health issues."


The idea behind the virtual reality system is to really put people into the position of someone suffering with a mental illness, or mental health issues. Traditionally, training around health and well being has focused on stories – but an issue is always more impactful if it is something that you have experienced yourself.

Karl really credits Thames Waters’ exceptionally talented training team for these latest ideas, as they have embraced his appetite for new and unusual measures that will grab peoples attention. The main change within the training team is that nothing is now considered off the table, even the most outlandish idea will be considered if benefit can be shown for the workforce. This is leading to an exciting year of continued improvement including the launch of personal proximity protection equipment to all individuals across sites to mitigate the heavy reliance on machine operators to prevent man-machine interface.  The impending launch of the world’s first virtual Safety Advisor (VSA) using predictive analytics, Karl told us his VSA will have its own seat at his management team meetings making a contribution towards steering the discussion like any other member of his lead team! He also outlined how the team from the latest star wars and Mary Poppins films had taken time off set to support delivery of a series of Visual Impact sessions using their stuntmen, pyrotechnics, make-up artists and camera teams to create a spectacular live incident immersing the unknowing senior managers and course delegates into a situation they would never forget – an exclusive article with video content to follow) 



Upon arrival at Thames Water’s Ashford Common site, the largest treatment water plant in Europe which works on the equivalent of 300 Olympic sized pools of water per day, there was some trepidation from the HSE team – how on earth could VR technology really let you walk a mile in the shoes of someone suffering from mental health, and what on earth would that experience be like for us?

Karl had laid out an array of equipment for us to take a look at, including state of the art headsets, Samsung Galaxy phones and software from Phygital, Thames Waters’ partner in this endeavour. You can sense the excitement in the team, many of whom were crowding around for a peek at the equipment, as well as a real sense of pride from Carole Moore (Head of Training & Statutory Compliance) and Gavin Kakoulli (Health and Safety Training Manager) and of course Karl.

Without giving away too much of the experience, the VR puts you into the body of “Dennis”, a gentleman working for Thames Water who is suffering from mental health and stress issues. Looking down and seeing mens hands and trousers, and finding myself sitting in a car that I didn’t own was quite the experience, but it only takes a minute or two for your olfactory senses to adjust. With noise cancelling headphones the whole process is incredibly immersive, you can hear “Denis’s” laboured breathing, his rising heartbeat, and the pressure caused by colleagues who, not understanding his position, are piling on stress with poor communication. The VR takes you through a day in the life of Dennis, and I could genuinely feel myself getting more stressed as the simulation continued, culminating in an intense situation that could be a worse case scenario quite easily for many people. 


"The most important part of this wellbeing training is ensuring the right support, so Karl and his team work closely with Occupational health workers to make sure that appropriate medical treatment is available for anyone who needs it."


Taking off the headset and headphones was like waking up – trying to adjust to the real world again does take a while – but I was incredibly impressed at how well the immersive technology had really made me feel as though I was “Dennis” and had an almost instantaneous impact on your empathy for people in this sort of situation.

The most important part of this wellbeing training is ensuring the right support, so Karl and his team work closely with Occupational health workers to make sure that appropriate medical treatment is available for anyone who needs it, and of course the VR technology is completely voluntary – Karl’s team has designed their wellbeing course to be taken with or without the immersive technology.

After quite a jarring morning – Karl then showed us the lighter side of virtual reality, with an animated tower game. After putting the headset and headphones back on again, I found myself standing on a moving platform within a rickety tower, steadily climbing to the top. The animated view was incredible, and I could almost feel the wind in my hair the experience is so realistic. There was also then a plank that the brave could attempt to walk along – as someone absolutely petrified of heights it was never going to be something that would tempt me, however some of the braver members of the HSE team did give it a whirl, with fairly comical results! (Take a look at James Weaver, FMCG Consultant for HSE recruitment, wobbling his way across the “plank” in the below picture). 



Karl and his training team then explained how this part of the technology could be used for training within Safety – meaning that staff members could experience working at height, MEWPS or working within confined spaces in a safe environment initially. As Carole explained, it also gives Senior managers within Thames the ability to really get to grips with what their team members do on a day to day basis – and get a much better operational understanding of the safety procedures necessary for this sort of environment. As Karl said during our meeting, I couldn’t remember the last time that “safety was this fun”. The implications of this sort of training are obviously far reaching and are extremely exciting – and we at HSE Recruitment (and I’m sure within the wider safety community) can’t wait to see what Karl will come up with next! 

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