NORCAT has implemented virtual-reality skills training to help train underground forklift drivers. Courtesy of NORCAT

With mines across Canada that were earlier shut down due to COVID-19 now reopening, new safety procedures such as physical distancing measures have forced companies to adapt their operations in order to keep employees safe. Keeping six feet apart could be problematic for typically up-close-and-personal processes like employee training, but skills training companies have stepped in with technologies designed to fill that gap.

RCT Global, a parts supply and skills training company operating in 71 different countries, took an approach that will likely mirror colleges and universities when school resume this fall by rolling out a new online training portal where users will be able to participate in live webinars with qualified instructors.

“We worked for a long time doing only face-to-face training, and that used to be conducted in our training rooms across our offices or on customer sites,” RCT Global product training coordinator Sunil Kumar told CIM Magazine. “But, as you know, technology has taken over, and more people are coming online and need services online, so we were thinking of this for some time.”

In one of these webinars, an instructor based at one of RCT’s global locations will be able to go step by step through each piece of equipment, explain what it does and what it requires, and interact directly with viewers who have questions. For employees who prefer to learn at their own paces, the portal also offers full-fledged online training courses as well.

“We started thinking about this around two years back. It took us some time to work out the details and start putting together the content, and obviously COVID-19 just made it more imperative,” Kumar said.

However, when it comes to fully certifying a learner on a piece of equipment, Kumar admits that webinars and online training cannot fully replicate the advantages of face-to-face instruction.

“The equipment that we supply to our customers is high-end technical equipment and there’s a fair amount of technical knowledge that’s involved that we have to impart. So, we have theory classes that we do face-to-face and then we give them hands-on, practical training. That’s obviously not possible online,” Kumar said.

“An online course can never be as effective or as good as a face-to-face course, but the idea is that we want to give them a heads-up; we want to give them some kind of basic information,” he continued. “So, the online courses are meant to be one of two things: one is kind of a foundational course before they attend the face-to-face course so they’re already familiar with the concepts, or it can be used as a refresher course for people who have already done the face-to-face course but have done it quite some time back.”

Physical distancing requirements have not stopped mines and skills training companies from holding face-to-face classes with employees, but it has complicated the matter by reducing class sizes and erecting literal barriers between the instructors and their students.

Related: The COVID-19 crisis has forced operations to adjust their tailings monitoring techniques with technology and proper planning

“If we take a look at earlier on when the pandemic hit, everybody took a required pause. The industry needed to understand the conditions in which training could take place,” said Jason Bubba, training and development director at NORCAT. “Once that was determined, practical programs underwent a hazard-analysis process where essentially all touch points were identified, and risk mitigation steps were taken to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure. In part of that, there’s hands-on training with reduced class sizes, and instructors and learners are required to wear additional [personal protective equipment] so that everybody is protected.”

With the opportunities for in-person instruction reduced, NORCAT is using technology that allows instructors and students to see everything up close for as long as they want: virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

“One of the bright notes that we’ve seen [is that] this technology and training has really had a massive increase in adoption. Using virtual reality or augmented reality simulation training, we can get workers experiential training in the virtual workplace,” Bubba said. “They’re getting more hands-on time with no risk to the learner, so that they can become confident and prepared to migrate to the workplace training on the equipment we’re training them on. So, they essentially require less training time in the field since they’ve practised in that virtual setting and acquired those skills that they need.”

NORCAT’s technology division, dubbed NORCAT Studios, has created several simulation programs in virtual reality that directly replicate the environment of a working mine, teaching lessons about scissor lift operation, warehouse hazards and mine safety. Its most recent project is a partnership with Vale for a pre-operation-check training program for underground forklift drivers that allows trainees  to walk around the forklift, analyze it and operate it in the virtual world. Specific fault conditions that wouldn’t be present in a regular training course, like a flat tire or an oil leak, can also be added to the simulation. For Bubba, VR training has the capacity to replace some of the required in-person instruction that would otherwise be required.

“Typically, we’re doing this one-on-one with an instructor, and it’s hard to do some of this instructor-led training with social distancing in place,” he said. “In the virtual world, we can spend more time with the person and they can be immersed in that virtual experience where they are actually performing the tasks of the pre-operational check on that particular piece of equipment.”

“Now, there are still instructors present and [they are] there to help [the learners] throughout the process if they need any assistance, but from our experience it’s working extraordinarily well in terms of getting someone to a certain level of competency. It doesn’t replace hands-on practical training – we still need those trainers in the field and we still need the equipment and the learners in the field – but it helps them get to a certain level faster, safer and more efficiently.”

When COVID-19 eventually comes under control and physical distancing measures are reduced or removed, some of the technologies made necessary by the pandemic will likely still have a place in the future of skills training.

“In terms of technology and learning, using AR and VR simulation really is a growing segment of our business. The sky’s the limit. We’re still essentially at the infancy stage of some of these technologies and it’s only going to get better from here,” Bubba said. “Learning technology wasn’t born out of the pandemic, but perhaps it put a little bit of a push for some companies to adopt it a little bit faster. But it certainly is a way of the future.”