Could Virtual Reality be a safety game changer?

Simon Grundy, Innovation Manager
26 September 2017
Image of a driving simulator of a motorway.
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The safety of our people is not a game. But what learning can we take from the gaming industry to improve safety behaviours?

We’re born into this world with limited knowledge and rapidly develop an understanding of the environment we know and live through interaction and our experiences. In school, we’re taught that we have five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. The truth is however, that humans have many more senses than this.

No, I’m not referring to the sixth sense some of us believe to possess. I’m referring to senses such as a sense of balance. These sensory inputs, processed by our brain ensure that we gain a continuous flow of critical information from the environment. From this we are then able to make cognitive decisions about how to react to situations whether something is safe or not for example. Everything that we know about our reality comes by way of our senses.

A near miss can lead to better behaviour

As part of research carried out by B-Safe Management Solutions, it was identified that people who have been involved in a near miss or who have experienced an incident often have much better safety behaviours than people who behave unsafely, because they’ve never been hurt before whilst working in an unsafe way. This often results in them not being able to perceive the associated risk and consequences.

Heinrich's triangle, for example, suggests that for every 330 unsafe acts, 29 will result in minor injuries and 1 in a major or lost time incident. So how can we shock our senses and improve safety behaviours and how can we expose our senses to near misses or dangerous occurrences whilst keeping our people safe. For me, the answer lies in technology and especially the learning we can take from virtual reality.

Investing in technology

In simple terms, virtual reality fundamentally means ‘nearly-reality’ and is the creation of a virtual environment presented to our senses in such a way that we experience it as if it was real. It’s critical to note, that the more senses that we are able to present with false data, aligned to the other sensory experiences, the more immersive and real the situation becomes.

The idea of virtual reality is not new and was conceived in the 1950s, however it wasn’t until the 90s that the entertainment industry, inclusive of game companies such as Nintendo started to invest in more portable hardware for gamers.

VR is reality without risks

With the advancement in game graphics, screen technology and more affordable portable hardware, virtual reality technology has firmly cemented itself in the entertainment industry. Investing in technology such as VR in our industry offers a way to remove risk whether something is thought to be too dangerous, expensive or impractical, by simulating an activity before it is conducted.

Despite having robust plans, procedures and systems, people can, and do, still make mistakes. In an environment where our employees are exposed to high risks every day to help keep the UK moving, from maintaining the road network or replacing railway tracks, virtual reality technology can help us to minimise unnecessary risk to our teams, clients and the people around us, targeting zero accidents. Imagine experiencing the everyday dangers our employees face such as working next to a high speed live rail line from the comfort of your office chair.

Targeting zero accidents

The Government’s Road Safety Strategy, “Tomorrow’s Roads: Safer for Everyone” identifies driver fatigue as one of the main areas of driver behaviour that needs to be addressed with shift workers six times more likely to be in a fatigue-related crash, whether that be at work (operating machinery or vehicles) or commuting.

The safety of our employees is of paramount importance. Injuries aren’t inevitable. With 10% of our employees working night shifts, we’ve taken steps to address this and remove fatigue-related incidents through the use of VR.

Through our membership with The Manufacturing Technology Centre, we’re working with Holovis a company that primarily creates immersive and mixed reality solutions for theme park attractions and one of our suppliers Keltbray to create a driver simulator.

The simulator uses virtual reality technology to emphasise the consequences of driver fatigue and help users understand the catastrophic incidents that can result from making the decision to get behind a wheel when fatigued.

An unpredictable and realistic simulation

The use of basic applied intelligence and tracking enables the computer to generate varied scenarios based on the user’s interaction, making the situation unpredictable and more realistic. The device continually analyses the user interaction and generates different hazardous events for the user to experience. This provides a behavioural 'shock' with the aim of stimulating safe behaviours in the real work environment.

Due to the versatility of virtual reality technology, we can use it for a variety of different types of beneficial activity. Although the focus is currently on safety we can also use the equipment for task rehearsal activities, enabling users to gain experience in a safe environment away from unnecessary exposure to risk. It also allows us to create more immersive operational briefings which were previously carried out verbally with site diagrams and drawings, which allows us to identify and review site hazards in advance. In essence, virtual reality technology is helping us deliver training in a stimulating way that ensures our people learn in a safe and controlled environment.

A matter of time until this is standard

It’s impossible to say when exactly virtual reality in our industry will become the norm, but with the associated safety benefits that it brings it’s only a matter of time before it does.

As a business, we are focusing on the digital agenda of the industry and working with our parent company Ferrovial to explore more of the game changing technologies that will shape the future of our industry and the infrastructure. If you’re interested and would like more information, please email for more information.

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