Feature Story

Workplace safety 2.0

by Anne Field

Workplace safety 2.0

For on-the-job safety training, many employers, insurance companies and schools find immersive virtual reality systems are the next best thing to being there.

They call it "Safety in a Box". To teach construction workers how to handle potential on-site emergencies, Texas Mutual Insurance Co., a seller of workers' compensation insurance, distributes the next best thing to being there--a virtual reality system that allows users to experience various construction site accidents and how to avoid them. Thus, sporting a Google Cardboard viewer, workers can be immersed in a trench that caves in, witnessing dirt pile on top of them and then a fade to black. "People know they should do certain things at a construction site, but the experience of what can happen isn't real to them, " says Jeremiah Bentley, senior manager, marketing and community affairs. "With this, you experience it first-hand."

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The military started using virtual reality for battlefield training many years ago. Now, thanks to advances in the technology and dramatic cost reductions, a growing number of companies are turning to VR for teaching workers about on-the-job safety. It's especially useful for industrial and manufacturing businesses, where an on-site emergency can result in multiple injuries or even deaths, but workers can't get hands-on training without experiencing the real, perhaps deadly, thing "You don't, say, fall off a building and live to tell about it," says Bentley.

Certainly, there are a number of benefits to using VR in workplace safety training. Research shows that when workers are better trained, there are fewer accidents, as well as injury-related costs and production delays. Plus, increasingly, younger workers used to playing video games, easily adapt to VR-based training and making the leap from the virtual experience to real life. In addition, "Anyone coming out of school expects that technology in the workplace should reflect the technology they use in the rest of their lives," says Livia Wiley, senior product manager software of Schneider Electric, which develops VR training systems. 

Immersed in dangerous situations—safely

An on-site emergency can result in multiple injuries or even deaths, but workers can't get hands-on training without experiencing the real, perhaps deadly, thingBut it's the ability for workers to experience and be immersed in an unsafe situation without risking real injury that's probably the biggest benefit. Take Safety in a Box. Developed last spring, it lets workers get a taste of the four most serious causes of construction site emergencies—being caught in a collapse, touching an active electric line, falling from a ledge and being struck by an object. Developers tried their best to make the experiences seem as realistic as possible. For example, for the trench collapse, they videoed a backhoe shoving dirt on top of a trench, creating the illusion of a cave-in.  To create a fall from the fourth floor of a building, the camera actually dropped from that height. "You can look around and see yourself falling," says Bentley.     

According to Bentley, it's too soon to assess the impact the system has had on workplace accidents. But he is hopeful results will be positive. "We're trying to leverage technology to help people be safer," he says. 

In some cases, even veteran workers feel like they're in the middle of the real thing. Take Australia's UNSW School of Mining Engineering, which uses VR training modules for simulating a coal mine explosion. "Some of the more experienced miners start to smell the mine, because it tricks so many senses," says James Tibbet, virtual reality development manager at UNSW Mining Engineering.     

In many situations, workers and students need to learn how to behave in a team, not just on their own. So some systems, like UNSW's modules, involve group collaboration. Teams work together, exploring an underground mine and various hazards, like coal particles piling up underneath conveyer belts, which can cause a fire and lead to an explosion. The goal is to see how many risks they can find in a certain period of time.                                                 

In some cases, the technology allows users to be graded on their progress. Bechtel, for example, has a variety of systems aimed at teaching workers to avoid accidents in warehouses and manufacturing plants. It's developing one that simulates the risks and procedures in excavation work, in which users are guided through different steps crucial to safety. To that end, participants experience various scenarios, such as ensuring that nearby structures are not undermined, simulating a daily check of the area before starting work and identifying appropriate techniques for barricading the site. Along the way, there are a series of checkpoints where workers get scored on each task.     

Some applications also allow users to continue their lessons after they've left the training facility. Schneider Electric's systems are downloaded onto workers' phones or iPads, so that after they're done, they look at videos and standard operating procedural manuals if they don't remember something. "They can rotate and manipulate it on their phone wherever they are," says Wiley. "It goes well beyond the moment of training."         



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