Virtual reality simulator is designed to protect construction workers from falls

A student demonstrates the virtual reality safety training. Working with James Jenkins, an associate professor of construction management technology, worked with the Envision Center to create a virtual reality safety training simulation for construction workers. Here a student, wearing a virtual reality headset and a workplace safety harness, tests the simulation's interactions.

Every year, several hundred construction workers in the United States will be injured or killed working on the job, the majority of them from falls. Purdue Professor James Jenkins thinks virtual reality can help reduce the number.

Jenkins, an associate professor of construction management technology, is working with ITaP’s Envision Center to develop the first virtual reality simulation training for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration funded by the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program. The goal is to help workers better learn and retain safety training materials.

Current methods – think PowerPoint presentations, safety videos and training manuals – aren’t always effective, says Jenkins.

“I’ve seen a lot of PowerPoint presentations where the instructor is just clicking through the slides, reading off the screen,” Jenkins says. “I wanted to find a way to make the material more interactive.”

Jenkins approached Envision Center staff with the idea of creating a safety training simulation in virtual reality, where construction workers could be trained to follow the safety precautions required when working from heights. Instead of watching a video about best practices, workers would apply them virtually with the help of the HTC Vive, a virtual reality headset with wireless hand controls that lets a user completely immerse themselves in a virtual environment.

“So much of the current material is passive, where you’re listening or watching as information is presented to you. It can be hard to retain,” says Jenkins. “This takes that same information and makes it hands-on, almost like a game.”

But it’s a game that can have a serious impact. In 2016, more than one in five private industry workers killed on the job worked in the construction industry. And more than one third of construction workers killed – 384 individuals – died as the result of a fall. Unsurprisingly, the number one OSHA violation cited during that time was lack of fall protection.

“There’s so much that can be prevented by following the safety standards,” says Jenkins. “But the risk of falling is great, because it only takes one mistake for something bad to happen.” 

To create the virtual reality simulation, Jenkins worked with George Takahashi, Envision Center technical lead, and a team of graduate students, who created a virtual world that mimics the potential dangers of a job site. Although the center has created training simulations before – like a virtual clean room for training pharmacy students and a virtual intensive care unit for nursing students – the fall-safety training required an understanding of OSHA safety rules as well as of the technology used to build a virtual world full of potential pitfalls.

“For instance, in one of the scenarios the worker is indoors, working on an exposed ceiling, and needs to attach a safety harness – should it be attached to a support beam, or a heating pipe, or to the pipe for the fire sprinkler,” says Takahashi. “Those are scenarios that are faced every day.”

The research team plans on working with construction professionals to test out the new virtual reality simulation and to study if workers are better able to retain safety information. If approved by OSHA, the simulation will be made available this fall.

“We want to make sure we get it right,” says Jenkins. “This is the first time that OSHA has approved a virtual reality format for training. Done right, I think it can save a lot of lives.”

Writer: Dave Stephens, technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue, 765-496-7998,

Last updated: March 29, 2018