It’s no secret that construction is dangerous work and involves a considerably higher risk of injury or death than most occupations. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), at any given time 6.5 million people are working at approximately 252,000 construction sites across the United States. Some of the most common hazards for workers include falls from heights, trench collapse, scaffold collapse, electric shock, repetitive motion injuries and failure to use proper protective equipment.
Of course, proper training can help mitigate these and other risks inherent to industry professionals, but even training carries risks of serious bodily injury. Today, some companies are making use of virtual reality technology to train new construction workers in an immersive simulated virtual environment, which they hope will eliminate or greatly reduce the risks associated with workers’ training, and ultimately on the job for real.
Real world training, in addition to being hazardous, is also expensive, which is another compelling reason some companies are turning to virtual training methods. Construction tech researchers Rafael Sacks, Amotz Perlman and Ronen Barak conducted a study on construction safety training using immersive virtual reality and found that trainees maintained better attention and concentration in a virtualized environment, and that over time, the training with virtual reality was more effective than traditional on-site training.
“VR has been shown to be suitable for presenting trainees with hazards directly and realistically without compromising their safety.
“VR has been shown to be suitable for presenting trainees with hazards directly and realistically without compromising their safety. Second, the research has shown that safety training with VR holds the attention of trainees better than conventional classroom training does. Thirdly, VR can be used to give trainees a measure of control over the environment, thus reinforcing learning,” they wrote in their conclusion of the study.
The technology is not yet perfect, however. Dr. Faridaddin Vahdatikhaki, who teaches in the Construction Management & Engineering department of the Dutch University of Twente, warns that existing technology offer a limited number of training scenarios due to their proprietary nature, and that real-world behavior of actual equipment is not yet advanced enough to offer feedback that mirrors the real world. Lastly, most current virtual reality training is designed for a single user, which he says undercuts the most critical element of jobsite safety: communication.
“Given that communication is an indispensable ingredient for effective and safe equipment handling, training simulators need to address multi-user environment where several trainees can simultaneously work, or collaborate, on a training scenario.”
That’s not to say in spite of its state of infancy that virtual reality training isn’t being seriously considered or even implemented by construction companies. Chief Learning Officer recently wrote that companies including Hong Kong-based Gammon Consturction Ltd. And San Francisco-based Bechtel are making use of the tech to train employees. Bechtel is currently working with wearable technology company Human Condition Safety (HCS) in an effort to improve site safety, reduce injuries and even make the training process more fun for employees.
Chris Bunk, HCS’ Chief Operating Officer, told CLO that VR training environments “[create] a much more immersive and engaging environment for training the workforce.
The training modules so far in use include hazard identification, forklift training, scaffolding training and ironworker training. The VR training even accounts for environmental hazards, like how a new construction worker will react to working high up in a building. Bunk says the virtual training environments even simulates that vertigo-inducing feeling of height to acclimate workers before they set foot on that scaffolding in the real world.
The VR training even accounts for environmental hazards, like how a new construction worker will react to working high up in a building.
HCS’ courses factor in things that would be downright dangerous to create on a real construction site environment, like someone unexpectedly crossing your path while working with heavy machinery or while moving something heavy. It also incorporates multi-user environments, where others in a classroom can simultaneously see what the trainee sees using screens.
So, can construction workers really be trained to work effectively using virtual reality goggles, hydraulic seats and joysticks? More than likely. And as more companies adopt virtual reality training methods, the technology will likely improve over time. Anything that makes training and on-site work safer for construction workers is a good thing, so this space is definitely one worth watching.
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