Safety and fall prevention is at the core of most construction training sessions. Too often, though, the training focuses on telling rather than showing. The American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) is working to change that with the use of virtual reality technology for virtual safety training.

ASSP recently unveiled the VR Fall Protection Experience at Safety 2018, the organization’s safety conference. The app helps train workers in simulated settings that resemble real life, just without the actual dangers that come with many construction tasks. The goal: preventing fall-related injuries and fatalities.

A typical safety training needs to cover hazard identification, lanyard and harness safety checks and more, says Thomas Kramer, vice chair of the ANSI Z359 Accredited Standards Committee and fall protection subject matter expert for the app. All of this can amount to a lengthy discussion.

“It’s not unusual to spend a couple hours talking about each of those topics, getting into some very nitty-gritty detail,” he explains. “However, using VR, somebody can experience all those items firsthand in a matter of minutes. They can be in a situation where they’re identifying the hazards on the roof, selecting the anchorages, seeing what happens in good or bad scenarios, inspecting harnesses, selecting lanyards.”

How VR fall protection training works

The VR app follows the ANSI/ASSP Z359 Fall Protection and Fall Restraint standards and offers an immersive experience that lasts three to five minutes. Users wear a VR headset and engage with a virtual environment to navigate the roof of a two-story building to identify fall hazards, like a skylight or a detachable rooftop fan.

Users then build fall-protection systems, choosing between four anchor points, three harnesses and three lanyards. They select and inspect equipment to ensure the safest level of fall protection.

“Everyone has probably fallen in the past, so everyone understands gravity; people don’t understand fall protection, though.”

Once the system is built, the user gets to see it in action through a co-worker and learn about anchorage and equipment strengths and fall clearance. The user’s performance is then assessed.

The app can be purchased from ASSP’s online store.

Why fall protection is non-intuitive

Falls continue to be a major risk in the construction industry. In 2017, falls were the most frequently cited OSHA violation. Falls accounted for 38 percent of all construction deaths in 2016, according to OSHA.

VR is a way to immerse people and help them better understand safety through realistic and hands-on experiences, Kramer says. The technology ensures consistent construction training, and it can be less costly way to train both large and small groups.

While the risk of falls and other safety issues likely weighs on the minds of most construction workers and business owners, Kramer says the issue needs to be consistently reinforced and revisited.

“The challenge is that fall protection equipment is not intuitive,” he suggests. “Think about other forms of personal protective equipment that workers use in the workplace. You probably think of safety glasses, safety shoes. You think about gloves; you think about hardhats, things like that. Those are forms that everyone uses in their everyday life.”

Common practice becomes common sense

Kramer points out that workers don’t wear harnesses as frequently, which can lead to a lack of intuition and, consequently, increased risk of falls.

“If something is common sense, it means you’ve done it before and that’s how you’ve been able to generate that common sense,” he says.

“Everyone has probably fallen in the past, so everyone understands gravity; people don’t understand fall protection, though. You also have people that say, ‘I’ve climbed on my roof and I’ve never fallen.’ And so, they associate no incidents with no risk. And that’s definitely not the case.”

Additionally, because falls may be relatively common on the job site, it can lead to lead to false perceptions of risk. Kramer says the VR app helps workers understand hazards that may be less obvious, emphasizes the life-and-death situations, and gives them a platform to learn and fail safely.