ElectriCom uses simulators to improve operator safety

Oct. 12, 2023
Operator-related incidents led ElectriCom to rethink its training program.

Two operator-related safety incidents prompted managers at ElectriCom, a utility infrastructure company operating in the midwestern and southern United States, to rethink the company’s approach to equipment operator training.

Content provided by CM Labs Simulations.

The company employs roughly 650 people, with 500 or so in an operations capacity. Nearly 200 employees operate construction equipment.

Although managers understood that additional stick time was needed to improve operator competency, continually removing equipment from job sites for the purpose of training would have a serious impact on productivity.

Operator training needed to be standardized and consistent. Learning curves needed to be shortened. And, given the skilled labor shortage and challenges related to employee recruitment, ElectriCom needed a safe and efficient way to identify current employees who possessed the raw talent necessary to become operators.

Shane Matthews, director of training and development, invested in two simulator training systems from CM Labs.

“We started emphasizing the simulator training right away,” Matthews said in a statement.

The company purchased a fully immersive Vortex Advantage simulator with three display screens that uses at its Midwest training facility. Vortex Edge Plus, a portable desktop version, can be used wherever training needs to take place, according to Matthews.

“After our safety incidents, we wanted to implement some kind of competency program,” Matthews said. “So we put a mini-excavator Qualified Operator Training curriculum together that is essentially the equivalent of OSHA’s Powered Industrial Trucks (Forklift) Standard. This includes a classroom session Q&A and written test. We’ve supplemented that with excavator simulation training to conduct competent person training across our entire company.”

In most instances, the operator trains on a simulator for up to two hours. Then they will head into the field to operate an actual piece of equipment. Because of that initial simulator training, the trainee typically becomes accustomed to the machine much faster, according to CM Labs.

Matthews’ team has also begun using the simulators for new employee orientation. Every individual spends at least 30 minutes on a simulator, under the watchful eye of an instructor.

“We’re watching and assessing things like hand-eye coordination,” Matthews said. “Maybe someone was hired to be an overhead power lineman. But after orientation and observing them on the simulator, we think, ‘Wow, it would be a pretty short learning curve to get them trained to be a competent equipment operator.’”

Matthews is now analyzing the return on its investment in the simulation training systems. Although the numbers aren’t in yet, Matthews said the benefits of using the simulators have been obvious.

4 benefits of simulator training

1) Operator training is standardized.

“Prior to purchasing our simulators, operator training was pretty inconsistent,” Matthews said. “Foreman A may have thought an operator needed six weeks of training. Foreman B may have thought six hours would be enough. Now we have a clearly laid-out program, and the simulators play a critical role in the training that’s required to take place.

2) Coaching is safer.

“When we used to train exclusively on live equipment, coaching was a bit difficult,” Matthews said. “To provide coaching in a safe way, the machine had to be powered down. The operator had to remove their hands from the controls. I walked up, talked to the operator, and then walked back to my original position 10-15 feet away. Then the operator could fire the machine back up and start again.

“With the simulator, I can literally put hands on hands,” he said. “I can move the trainee’s hands and coach them, and have a discussion with them. It’s much more effective, which is why we’re seeing a trend where learning curves are a lot shorter.”

3) Can training on various machines.

“With a mere Training Pack change, I can switch training from one type of equipment to another—all on the same simulator,” Matthews said. ElectriCom use mini excavators, digger derricks, and forklifts, but crews also use things like telehandlers and compact track loaders. Not having to purchase dedicated hardware for each equipment type helps keep cost down, enabling Mathews to offer simulation training on just about everything ElectriCom crews operate.

4) Training costs are reduced.

“When I pull a piece of equipment off a job to use for training, it’s not making money,” Matthews said. “But training still puts wear and tear on that piece of equipment. That equipment still needs fuel and oil. And, in most cases, we’re ultimately pulling an operator off a job because we’re taking their equipment away. All of that starts to get costly.”