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Student Creates VR Simulator to Help Protect Workers

Tue March 22, 2022 - West Edition #7

A Texas A&M doctoral candidate has created a virtual reality simulator designed to help construction workers stay safe on the job.

Construction science PhD student Nam Kim said more than 100 workers are killed in road work zones every year, but research has found that workers who have already experienced a workplace accident or injury are more sensitive to the hazards surrounding them.

Often times, the alarm beeps and rings on construction vehicles are functional when these workers suffer an accident on the job, Kim said.

"We found that our sensory organs and neuroactivities in our brains are designed so that if there are warning alarms that are constantly ringing around them, they stop paying attention and just focus on their task," Kim said. "That's one of the phenomenon that cause workers' inattentive behavior at hazardous work places."

That's why Kim's simulator has a worker perform a simple road cleaning task around moving construction vehicles so they can experience the consequences of their unsafe behaviors.

"During that time, many construction vehicles continuously move around the worker," Kim said. "Using eye-tracking sensors, we measure how they respond to the approaching vehicles. If they continuously ignore the approaching construction vehicles, we trigger the accident and make them experience it."

Kim said the goal is to understand more about how this virtual experience and the warning alarms affects the worker's sensory responses. That's why Kim and his team also measured the brain activity of those who used the simulator.

"After experiencing our VR environment, workers' sensory response to warning alarms significantly increased," Kim said. "It means that experiencing this VR safety training model influenced their sensory response to warning alarms."

Kim said a large construction company in Houston used his simulator on 35 of its workers and it was so satisfied with the results that management wants to use it for all their employees. He also says further research now is being funded by the National Science Foundation with a $750,000 grant.

The virtual safety training Kim designed also is primed for the pandemic world.

"To be honest, I didn't design this safety training for this pandemic period," Kim said. "However, I found that usually the conventional safety training, all workers gathered in a classroom to take the class from the instructor. But with this VR safety training, we don't need to do that. That will prevent an infection from spreading by many people gathering."

Kim's presentation of this research also earned first place at the university's Three Minute Thesis competition in November, beating out nine other finalists.

Kim worked in the construction industry before enrolling at Texas A&M and joining the construction sciences department. He said seeing workers become disabled as the result of tragic accidents on the job motivated his research on construction safety.

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