Dogs are the most commonly owned individual pet in the UK, with 26% of households having one. But each year thousands of postal delivery workers are attacked by "man's best friend". Although stories about dog attacks on people in general -- and children in particular -- regularly hit the headlines, the risk posed by uncontrolled pets to men and women simply doing their job receives much less attention.
Royal Mail employs about 90,000 frontline workers to deliver post and parcels to around 30 million homes and businesses in the UK, six days a week. Given the scale of this operation and the number of dog-owning households, it follows that dog attacks are a significant issue for the national postal service and one of the biggest hazards for staff.
"Every year, there are around 3,500 dog attacks on our staff, which happen through the door, at the door, inside the garden gate and on the street," says Royal Mail's global director of safety, health, wellbeing and environment, Dr Shaun Davis.
Injuries sustained in a dog attack can be permanently disabling and certainly painful and traumatic
"The bottom line is that people can be and are killed by dogs. They are unpredictable animals. Injuries sustained in a dog attack can be permanently disabling, and they are certainly painful and traumatic."
Although the number of attacks has dropped steadily over the past five to seven years, largely due to concerted efforts by Royal Mail and the trade unions through dog awareness campaigns, training and lobbying for tougher legislation, Davis points out that changes in how the postal system is used has brought new challenges: "We deliver more parcels now, which requires the delivery person to knock at the door and thus risk coming into contact with a dog. So we are certainly not taking our foot off the gas in terms of awareness-raising and training on this issue."
This month marks the sixth year that Royal Mail and the Communication Workers' Union (CWU) have run Dog Awareness Week, which starts on 8 July. The aim this year is to raise awareness of dog attacks on postmen and women, engage with dog owners and highlight the issue to the wider public. The week is always held in early summer because, Davis says: "The kids are off school and they are more likely to open the door to the postman or woman, thus letting the dog out. Also, it's better weather generally, so kids and dogs tend to be outside in the garden."
He recalls that, in the early days of the campaign, the media "took the mick" but they no longer see it as a laughing matter.
We're obviously getting people to understand the key messages," he says. "It's one of my favourite weeks of the year as it gives me such a strong platform not only to raise awareness among the public but also to reinforce to our own people how important they are."
The welfare of frontline workers is even more prominent this year with the national launch of a virtual reality (VR) training app. This harnesses the power of immersive technology to highlight to postal workers the hazards posed by dogs and how to stay safe (see "Reality checks" below).
Davis says: "Royal Mail is always looking for different ways to approach this problem, and this investment in new training for the front line combines new technology and some of our traditional guidance to deliver the learning experience in a completely different way."
The Virtual Reality Society uses the term VR to describe a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment that a person can explore and interact with. The person forms part of the virtual world as they become immersed within the environment and can manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.
VR training is about replicating a situation in a safe environment, learning to identify the right and wrong way to do something, and practising a difficult situation any time and in any place. Or, as Davis puts it: "It's about giving the person the opportunity to experience the realism of a dog attack without any of the risk."
Developed with digital learning company Sponge, Royal Mail's short, interactive VR experience is built around the acronym AVOID and is designed to teach postmen and women to:
Avoid the hazard
Observe the situation
Inform managers back at base
Employees are placed in the role of an experienced postal worker supporting a new colleague, "Melanie", on her first delivery round. They have to spot dog-related hazards and make decisions about how to keep their colleague and themselves safe.
Although the novelty value and immersive nature of virtual reality (VR) technology do contribute to learner engagement and information retention, it shouldn't be used just for the sake of it. VR may help to draw in employees but it could hinder more than help those who have a bad experience.
Organisations thinking of using it should put the same effort into designing VR training and planning learning outcomes as they do with any other training effort. That means taking these steps:
Understand your training needs: focus on the knowledge that learners must acquire and what you want them to do with that knowledge.
Make your business case: determine what you expect to gain from the training, in terms of better performance, fewer incidents/accidents, greater productivity, and less time spent on training. Align those benefits with the expected cost of developing the training.
Choose the right development partner: make sure your learning-experience developer understands your organisation's needs and has the expertise and ideas to deliver the right results within the parameters you set.
Pilot the training: test its effectiveness among a representative sample of employees and use their feedback to enhance it.
Making it believable
Choosing a realistic and relatable scenario is key to the effectiveness of the experience. Davis explains why Royal Mail and Sponge went with the "new worker" approach: "First, we wanted to get around the problem of attaching blame to mistakes. In this scenario, the user is advising someone else, not making the mistakes themselves. Second, there is the problem of optimism bias -- 'Oh, that would never happen to me' -- so we presented a scenario in which it happens to somebody else. Third, we wanted to harness that maternal/paternal sense of care and duty to others. The fact that the new starter in the scenario is a young woman is deliberate."
Royal Mail's digital learning manager, James Barton, adds: "Having a core definition of the types of scenario our workers encounter means we were able to cover the majority of hazards, for example those people who like and want to engage with dogs, a dog snapping through the letterbox, a seemingly friendly dog in the garden and so on. We have taken each of these and shown the greatest impact of each."
The experience is driven by smartphone technology and requires the user to wear a VR headset and headphones. According to Barton, the physical kit is inexpensive and widely available. "Lots of people have these headsets at home, so this approach is not limited by unaffordable tech. And, of course, pretty much everyone has a smartphone these days."
Royal Mail's 42 safety business partners -- each of which covers a patch of units -- have been provided with two headsets each and it is up to them to prioritise, based on risk levels, which units and participants should have them at any one time.
To view the film, participants download the app to their phone, which is slotted into the headset. The 360o video technology allows the wearer to look in every direction and control with their eyes what happens -- including choosing the course of action and moving on to the next stage.
The film begins with the postal worker accompanying Melanie on her first delivery round. Filmed using professional actors on a real residential street in Devon, it is utterly convincing. Melanie is saying how she loves dogs and they love her when a woman approaches with a friendly looking dog on a lead. Melanie takes a treat from her pocket and bends down to offer it -- at which point you are asked to decide on a course of action: tell her to step away from the dog; tell her it's okay to pet it but don't give it a treat; or tell her it looks friendly enough, so go ahead and give it the treat. After she takes your advice, the scene then switches to "Carl", the manager back at base, who explains why the correct course of action in this instance is A -- avoid. (If you advise Melanie to go ahead and pet the dog or give it the treat, the animal snaps at her.)
Our people often put the customer before their own personal safety. There's a compulsion to deliver the mail at all costs
The film moves on to calling at a house, where Melanie (and the person wearing the headset) are required to look for signs of a dog, such as chew toys or food bowls in the garden, a sign displayed in the window, and sounds of barking from inside the house. At one stage, you are both presented with the dilemma of what to do when the customer insists the dog is friendly and doesn't need to be kept back. How do you politely but firmly challenge the customer in order to protect yourself? Back at base, Carl advises that you can refuse to deliver mail to this customer or delay the delivery until the situation is safe.
According to Barton, this can be the most difficult dilemma for postal delivery workers. "Our people will often put the customer before their own personal safety," he says. "There's that compulsion to deliver the mail at all costs. People do the wrong thing for the right reasons."
The digital learning manager has personal experience of an incident, having been attacked when he was working for Parcelforce in his early days with Royal Mail. He was filling in on a round he was unfamiliar with and arrived at a house where two friendly looking Alsatians were out front. Even though he saw the dogs, he didn't want to leave the customer waiting or force them to go to the depot to collect the parcel themselves. So he took the risk, unaware that out of sight was a third Alsatian, which appeared and mauled his arm, causing injuries that needed hospital treatment.
He says on reflection: "You might think you'd be fine in the event of a dog attack but, in reality, most people freeze. That's what happened to me, and the customer initially shrugged it off, saying that the regular postman knew not to try to deliver when the daddy dog was around. One of the aims of this training is to show our people the consequences of 'doing a customer a favour'."
Davis agrees: "Many accidents are due to people trying to do the right thing for the customer, and that is a challenge for us. Yes, it is key to get the mail delivered but not at any cost. We don't expect our people to compromise their own safety."
Delivering the right message
Tied in with this is the "macho" element, something with which other male-dominated industries contend. According to its annual report and financial statements for 2017-18, in Royal Mail's UK Parcels, International and Letters business there are five times more male operational staff than female.The VR approach to training brings benefits here, too. "When we piloted this kit, users told us they liked the isolation of it and the fact that they are immersed in an environment that they are familiar with," says Barton.
"All of this makes people feel comfortable in a way that they sometimes don't when in a group, sitting in a classroom or standing in front of a video screen. Blokes, in particular, can be wary of saying anything or reacting in a particular way for fear of ribbing from their colleagues."
Although there is little empirical research into the effectiveness of VR technology for learning (see "The right fit", IOSH Magazine, May 2019), there is evidence that it can enable more effective learning at a lower cost and in less time than many traditional methods.
A study in 2015, in which US researchers analysed reports comparing augmented virtuality (AV) and augmented reality (AR) with other approaches, found that AV/AR reduces learning time, increases how much information is retained, produces learning that is less likely to be forgotten, is preferred by participants to other approaches, and increases immersion, or flow, during the process.
When Sponge compared three learning methods -- PDF, gaming and VR -- it found that, in terms of knowledge acquisition and retention, VR learners scored highest. VR also came out on top in terms of enjoyment, learning satisfaction and concentration.
Barton is not surprised. "We went for VR rather than e-learning in this case because of the immersion and isolation factors," he says. "Work environments at Royal Mail can be noisy, so this system cuts all that off. Also, most of the other training we do is targeted at everyone -- what we call 'sheep-dipping'. With this, we can go to where the risk or problem is greatest. In terms of dog attacks, we know where the problem areas are and which of our people are most at risk. By rolling this out through our 42 local safety business partners, we can take it to where it adds most value."
Davis adds: "It's taking a solution to people in a way that will engage and excite them. While e-learning is still part of our training suite, one constraint of that has been the need to have a computer. Our frontline workers don't sit in front of computers, so there is no such constraint with this technology."
The training was piloted nationally through Royal Mail's safety business partners and will be fully deployed in time for Dog Awareness Week. In the pilot areas, only one postal worker was bitten by a dog -- and it wasn't a situation that could have been avoided, according to Barton. In a promotional video for the new training, Shaun -- a postman working in the Liverpool area, who was the victim of a serious dog attack -- enthuses about it, saying: "It's an amazing way to learn. It's like you're actually there."
The new VR training module fits perfectly into the overall approach by Royal Mail and the unions to protect postal delivery staff. Together with less exciting but no less effective measures, peer-to-peer experience-sharing and regular initiatives by the Dog Attack Working Group (which involves safety, operations and union representatives), it is helping to keep postmen and women safe, and dogs and their owners out of trouble. One of these measures is the Walk Risk Assessment Platform, on which the locations of dangerous dogs are recorded. Information about hazardous routes is transmitted to frontline workers through the sorting frame.
As Davis says: "It's not about being anti-dog -- it's about responsible ownership and responsible behaviour, and making sure our customers and our people know the risks and what they can do about them."