Virtual Reality and the Future of Safety

Katelyn Stevens
Written by Katelyn Stevens

Virtual Reality | 5 Minute Read

In December of 1993, Nigel Smith lost his leg. He climbed up on a conveyor belt in the steel mill where he worked in Australia. The well-meaning intention was to unjam some products that had clogged the assembly. While still standing on the belt, he flipped over a tube which auto-initiated the start cycle. The unexpected motion caused him to fall, and he became caught with his leg trapped between two plates. He would have been cut in half had not a fast and astute coworker shut down the machine. He was, however, gravely injured; shattering both bones right down to the ankle and tearing off 50% of his calf muscle. Twelve months later, doctors amputated his leg. What was the root cause? He thought he had stopped the machine, but he didn’t understand how it worked and the proper safety procedures.

More than two decades have passed since Nigel’s injury and workplace safety has come a long way in Australia. But, in the United States, workplace deaths have increased. According to the United States Department of Labor, in 2017 over 5,000 workers were killed on the job. That equates to 14 deaths every day and even more injuries. VR technology is out to change that statistic. Training in VR environments will allow workers to heighten their levels of preparedness. They will be able to adjust for potential adverse events and fine-tune their emergency responses in low-stakes environments.

Ford Motor Company has been at the forefront of thought leadership when it comes to leveraging VR solutions to improve safety conditions. They have traditionally used CAD models to develop and perfect the ergonomics of new vehicle designs. Now Virtual Assembly Programs are helping to predict the physical impact on the workers.

To gather predictive data on this metric, Ford is now using full-body motion capture systems along with VR software solutions to analyze worker movement as they assemble parts. Once this data is collated, experts can identify potential risk patterns and areas of hazard. They can look at what kind of repetitive strain is being placed on the musculoskeletal and identify worker movements that may result in instability or unintended risk. Ford is also using these assembly assessments that include virtual car models, full body motion captures, and 3-D printings of individual components. The information is analyzed and then used to understand and adjust safety requirements.

Construction is another industry that has been an early and successful adopter of VR-based safety solutions. By taking classic 3-D modeling one step further, a VR-based landscape allows users a completely immersive experience where they can access each unique working environment and identify safety concerns before lives are on the line. Fall safety, in particular, is an area in construction where VR-based trainings can make a significant difference. Why? Because of its ability to engage the human sensory system to the point where the practice scenarios feel real.
Experiences that mimic height sensations, distractions, weather, and stress can all be played out and practiced safely in a virtual environment. Effectively engaging the workers’ mental and emotional states during training forces them to practice critical decision-making skills under simulated duress. By allowing workers to make choices in the simulation, they learn best how they are likely to react to a true emergency. By making choices in the VR environment, workers can safely make the necessary mistakes they need to learn. Moreover, deliberate and repetitive practice is now, for the first time, highly affordable.

Today, Nigel Smith is a WorkCover safety ambassador as well as a former professional volleyball player who represented Australia in the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney. He recently returned to the factory where his accident occurred and spoke to the company about the value of prioritizing workplace safety. He emphasizes that safety should always be a top concern and we should never stop innovating when it comes to protecting people on the job. He comments, “You know, this is the start of the journey of working safely. We can’t rely on the fact that we’ve made it. We do have to keep striving for a safe workplace.” The next step in the safety journey: VR.