Virtual Reality – A Treatment for Workplace Safety Issues

Virtual Reality – A Treatment for Workplace Safety Issues

Sebastian Dickinson
Educational Researcher | OVA
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Fatal accidents in the workplace have become a chronic disease. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics1, a worker died approximately every 99 minutes from a work-related injury in 2019, for a total of 5,333 lethal job accidents. And, sadly, the Canadian labor market displays dangerously similar symptoms. The 2020 Report on Work Fatality and Injury Rates2 reveals that in 2018, 1,027 Canadian workers died due to workplace accidents.

Less catastrophic, but still harmful, are repeated physical injuries linked to the workplace. Bodily reactions and exertions, incorrect use of equipment, falls, slips, and trips are among the most common labor accidents. Those wounds are painful physically, of course, but also financially; businesses spend more than $1 billion per week on serious, non-fatal workplace injuries, reports the Liberty Mutual Safety Index3.

When analyzing this business illness, ineffective safety training emerges as a common challenge among different industries. Traditional teaching methods and learning materials, which are mostly based on theory, offer palliative solutions, but no definitive cure. Generally speaking, manuals, videos, and online tests fail to hold participants' attention, leading to poor knowledge retention and no guarantee of successful application. It’s definitely time to make a change, especially considering the astronomical $83 billion spent in training in the U.S. over the course of 20194.

The thing is: training in environments that could present real dangers isn’t the solution either. It's expensive to replicate a mine rescue session, it's difficult to imitate a fire rescue scenario, and it's unproductive to stop an industrial assembly line so employees can learn procedures.

So then, what to do? 

Here's a solution: the VR treatment.

. . .

Firstly, VR simulations help build muscle memory. Just like athletes, with enough practice, the crisis response starts to come naturally. And, of course, a quick and appropriate reaction is fundamental in industries such as healthcare, where workers must develop the right reflexes to face daily emergencies. 

VR also allows for relaxing experiences that help reduce stress levels, which is ideal for tense work environments. We witnessed first-hand the positive change such experiences can bring after developing immersive mindfulness scenarios for Northwell Health, New York’s largest hospital network. 

A Northwell employee trying out our StellarX experience

Secondly, VR provides a type of training that’s simultaneous, remote, and accessible from anywhere in the world, allowing employers to implement collaborative work methods among their teams. Virtual hands-on training fosters natural collaboration among experts from a myriad of fields. An example of this would be the life-like training spaces we developed for the City of Quebec's law enforcement and first response departments, which helped professionals work more cohesively and improved overall cross-functional collaboration.

Verizon's VR training program5  is another example of collaborative work methods. For the initial phase, only some store managers and retail employees were asked to face robbery scenarios through virtual modules. After identifying a consistent gain of confidence in all the participants, Verizon spread its VR safety course to its 22,000 frontline employees across the U.S.

A Verizon employee immersed in the simulation (source: CBS)

Thirdly, VR can reinforce the habit of preventing accidents. Hazard recognition is an essential skill to maintain, and is instrumental to safety standards. This is particularly true for the construction and manufacturing industries: fall protection protocols, fire and chemicals training, correct maintenance, and careful use of machinery are all critical skills that must be constantly rehearsed to build a safety culture. In this vein, JetBlue decided to develop VR training hubs in its New York and Boston offices6. As more aircraft technicians rehearsed safety and maintenance drills, JetBlue saved both time and money.

An example of a simulated environment created with StellarX

Finally, using VR to improve safety also unlocks an easy way to monitor results. Biometric data from eye-tracking, head movement, and even heart rate offers unique insight into a user's performance. Furthermore, heat maps can reveal critical interactive zones within a virtual environment. In this regard, Ford's VR training program7 is an iconic case. The automobile company built a VR evaluation course reviewing car assembly procedures, aimed at decreasing staff injuries. Employees' movements were examined in a virtual workstation, using a head-mounted display and a 23 camera motion capture system. Eventually, Ford reduced musculoskeletal disorders by 70%, absent days by 75%, and assembly issues by 90%.

. . .

Ultimately, regardless of the risky nature of certain types of work, VR provides opportunities for everyone to feel safe and at ease.




1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics;

2. Tucker, S., Keefe, S. (2020). Report on Work Fatality and Injury Rates;

3. Liberty Mutual Safety Index; insurance/Documents/Services/Workplace%20Safety%20Index.pdf

4. Harvard Business Review, The Future of Work is Immersive;

5, 6. EHS Today, How VR can make the workplace measurably safer;

7. Computer Weekly, Ford reduces injuries with virtual assembly programme;

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