April 1, 2008 Safety scientists developed a virtual environment that simulates the look and feel of walking on the elevated, barrier-free planks used in the construction industry. Their research is helping to build understanding of the factors that contribute to accidents. The virtual environment allows the researchers to experiment and find preferred strategies to assist people attempting to regain their balance and to keep from losing it at all.
Each year, over 350 construction workers die -- many from falls. But a new virtual reality construction site may help save lives.
In a virtual reality world, standing high atop a building is easy; but in the real world, thousands of workers are injured at construction sites every year, and many falls are fatal. Now, engineers are using virtual reality to help improve safety for workers.
"If we can understand better why they're falling, then we can help to make recommendations that will help reduce or eliminate those deaths and injuries," says John Powers, an engineer at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Atlanta.
This virtual world gives volunteers the look and feel of walking along planks on top of very tall scaffolding. Small sensors measure walking patterns and stress levels to learn what role these factors play in the cause of falls. "We can bring them into VR, create a similar environment in which they feel they are at height and then collect that data safely," Powers explains.
Researchers learned most falls occur when workers lose their balance. Safety researchers also found workers can regain their balance by redirecting their attention to a visual reference, like a pole.
"The virtual reality system allows us to bring subjects into a controlled environment, which is safe, unlike their job site which would be more dangerous," Powers says. By learning why falls can occur in the virtual environment, engineers can find ways to keep workers safe in reality -- improving safety at any height.
Different types of shoes can also affect balance. Virtual test results may help companies design better footwear for workers.
WHAT IS VIRTUAL REALITY: The term "virtual reality" is often confusing because it is used in so many different ways. It is often used to describe interactive software programs -- on or off the Web -- in which the user responds to visual and auditory cures as he or she navigates a three-dimensional environment on a graphics monitor.
But originally, it referred to immersive virtual environments, in which the user would be immersed in an artificial, three-dimensional computer-generated world, involving not just sight and sound, but touch as well through so-called "haptic" devices. Touch is vital to direct and guide human movement, and the use of haptics in virtual environments simulates how objects and actions feel to the user through biofeedback processes. This is critical for performing virtual surgery as part of medical training, for example.
ABOUT THE SPINAL CORD: The spinal cord is the longest nerve in the human body; it is a bundle of nerves that carries electronic signals to and from the brain to the rest of the body. The brain and spinal cord together constitute the central nervous system. The spinal cord is surrounded by rings of bones called vertebra, which make up the spinal column (back bones), and the vertebra are named according to their location. Spinal cord injury results when damage to the spinal cord leads to a loss of function, such as mobility of feeling. Where the damage occurs determines what parts of the body are affected by the injury. Generally, the higher in the spinal column the injury occurs, the more dysfunction a person will experience.
The American Industrial Hygiene Association, The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health contributed to the information contained in the video portion of this report.