By: Thomas H. Welby Geoffrey S. Pope Published: February 2018

The Expanding Use of "Virtual Reality" Technology in Construction Safety Training

As the cost of the applied technology drops, bringing it within reach of more potential users, “Virtual Reality” (VR) — a shockingly useful outgrowth of the video gaming industry — is finding an increasing range of uses in the construction industry.

VR employs hardware and software to create an artificial, computer-generated simulation (or re-creation) of a real environment.  Images and sound are used to make the user feel as if he were experiencing the simulated environment firsthand.  Ubiquitous in video games, VR has many other uses, one of them being in flight simulators, which exist both as recreational applications, and in advanced versions, used in training pilots.

A related technology is “Augmented Reality,” which adds a computer-generated overlay to something real.  One example is “historic street views,” where computer-generated simulations of how central London or Paris looked, or are thought to have looked, in times past have been created, based on available photographs, historical works and paintings.  These images are available for your smartphone as an “app,” and can be accessed via your phone’s camera, as you walk around the actual area, to see what it looked like long ago.

These technologies are not new, but are increasingly becoming affordable for a wide variety of purposes.  Novel items are coming to market all the time, including headsets with a dock for your smartphone, that can deliver VR or AR to any user within reach of a cellphone signal.

“Reality Technology” is already in widespread use in the construction industry.  As prices fall, it has the potential for enormous benefits in a wide, and expanding, range of construction-related applications.

VR technology is already at work in helping owners, design professionals, builders and other industry players address the perennial (and, often, costly) problems as arise on many projects when —as the work progresses, errors in design and execution become apparent — the technology enables clients, architects, and builders to don a head-mounted display to take a virtual tour of the structure, as first designed.  Then, as changes to the design are proposed, whether as matters of necessity, to address design deficiencies, imperfectly-coordinated drawings, etc., or as matters of choice, to accommodate client preferences, users can see what the structure, as modified, will look like, before any physical work to carry out the changes is performed.

This technology also permits project participants at diverse locations, anywhere in the world with landline or WIFI coverage, to view and discuss the evolving plans, as the same unfold.

Other uses for the technology involve the management of the jobsite, workforce, equipment, and receipt and storage of materials.  Similarly, it is simple to create an apparently life-size, visual depiction of the site (or set of depictions, as the software can be programmed to show what the site, or any part of it, looks like, or will look like, from any desired viewpoint.

As costs drop, and interfaces become easier to use, Augmented Reality technology (which allows the user to maintain full awareness of the “real world,” with additional information superimposed) may, within a few short years, transform drastically the way that construction workers perform their tasks.

While still in its initial stages, the use of this technology allows workers, wearing “smart helmets,” to receive, wherever they may be, safety and other information, as appropriate, in light of the specific tasks they are performing.  The technology can also be used to transmit visuals of project drawings for remote viewing.

The technology also allows for the immediate, and detailed, transmittal of information regarding the locations of other workers, vehicles or heavy equipment, emergent dangers, and the like.

One area of special promise for Reality Technology is in safety training for the construction workforce.

As we have said in this space before, while OSHA, and an increasing number of governmental authorities, prescribe employee training in safety and OSHA compliance, a range of factors limit worker comprehension of safety training, and the practical effectiveness of even well-designed safety programs to bring about habitual employee compliance with the full range of OSHA mandates.

Both studies and experience have shown that conventional safety training — even when done by OSHA, or by well-paid professional consultants — is of limited effectiveness in making the precepts understood, and even less effective in fostering conformity with OSHA’s rules.

Part of the problem is linguistic.  Most training materials are in English (or Spanish) but dozens of other languages are spoken by construction workers in the greater New York City area.

Another difficulty is that safety trainers are exceedingly enamored of acronyms, buzzwords, and technical terminology, that too often goes right over the heads of the intended audience.  We read of one study, in which the OSHA 10-hour course was but faintly understood by graduate students in engineering at Tulane University.  If graduate students don’t assimilate most of what’s in the 10-hour course, chances are your construction workforce won’t, either.

It’s not just a question of construction workers, or many of them, being not the most highly-educated demographic. It’s also that adult learning happens in several different ways.  Some people learn just fine by listening. Others do better by reading, by watching, or by doing.  While professionally-produced, site-specific “full bells and whistles” VT safety tutorials may still be too costly for many smaller companies, we expect that, within a few years, most mid-size and even smaller companies will be doing part of the production work for VT tutorials in-house, with safety consultants adding some higher-end enhancements at moderate cost.

Not long from now, the VR job walk/safety tutorial is likely to become a standard feature of most larger projects.  Such an “immersive” experience, as a complement or alternative to more traditional training modalities, will enhance the effectiveness of companies’ safety programs, providing safety instruction, more extensive and accessible site views (including views of how the site will appear as the work progresses) and allowing virtual access, and teleconferencing concerning site conditions, from multiple sites all over the world.

A further advantage is that the workers’ “smart helmets” can display images that walk employees through safe and OSHA-compliant ways to perform key construction tasks, as the same are being performed.  Unlike comprehensive safety manuals, VR “apps” for the “smart helmet” or smartphone can readily and inexpensively be updated, as regulations change, and new ones are enacted.

The cost of deploying VR technology for safety training, design changes, logistical and other uses will be offset, at least in part, by reduced travel, executive and employee down-time, and administrative costs and other savings.

And, as the expanded use of “Reality Technology” for safety-related purposes begins to have a positive impact on the number of significant jobsite injuries, reductions in lost profits associated with construction accidents will be a further offset.  These include not only obvious, direct costs (medical, hospital/rehab expenses, higher insurance and workers’ comp premiums) but the hidden costs, including such items as lost productivity in responding to and investigating accidents, the cost to train replacement workers, legal expenses, etc.

The use of Virtual Reality in construction may look like an expensive gimmick for the moment, but soon it will be indispensable.  It’s a tool to look at for purposes including your safety program.

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