Research Lead Jennica Bellanca guides NIOSH workers through a virtual scenario on how to safely escape from a mine emergency. Each worker has a controller to operate the VR; the captain’s navigates them through the exercise. At left, what the 360-degree space looks like without VR.

Jul 22 2021

NIOSH, NIST, USDA Turn to Virtual Reality to Train Employees

Immersive VR headsets aid in recruitment and education while saving agencies time and money.

A professional driver sits in the cab of a 400-ton truck, surveying the terrain of a surface mine. He needs to make sure his path is clear of people, vehicles, drag lines and other equipment. But it’s his first time in this type of machinery, and perched more than 12 feet above the ground, he’s not sure about what he can’t see. 

Fortunately, he won’t hurt anyone or ruin any equipment. He’s wearing a virtual reality headset to navigate the situation within an application that simulates where his blind spots are before he ever sets foot in a truck cab.

The blind-spot app is just one of the VR programs developed by a team of training professionals at Gillette College in Wyoming. 

Created with funds from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the training program was built to correspond with MSHA standards. Nicholas Ullrich, a safety instructor at Gillette College, is leading the design of VR content.

“I’ve been in safety for 15 years and a trainer for four. There are so many applications for VR training, I think people should give it a try,” Ullrich says.

Government Agencies Turn to VR

Already in regular use at NASA and the Department of Defense, where the Army trains using Microsoft HoloLens headsets, augmented and virtual reality for testing and training are gaining speed in civilian agencies.

Although it’s still sporadic, several converging factors may bring government use of AR and VR to the forefront.

“Between improvements in software, improvements in mobile phone technology and now with 5G networks, all those things coming together are really going to drive explosive growth in this market,” says Ray Briggs, a principal and partner with Deloitte’s government and public sector division.

While challenges such as aging technology portfolios remain, opportunities to employ VR training are plentiful.

“The government is the No. 1 purchaser of goods and services. Civilian agencies have large fleets, assets and infrastructure,” all of which can benefit from more interactive and engaging operator training, Briggs says.

RELATED: How is the Air Force using VR to modernize flight training? 

VR Headsets Can Be Useful Recruitment Tools 

The pandemic has also driven the adoption of VR training. “People used to get on a plane to train others or to be trained,” Briggs continues. 

“Now, there’s been an enhancement to the effectiveness of distance learning. They’re seeing that they can turn this situation into an engaging remote learning setting with both AR and VR.”

At a typical college recruitment event for the Agriculture Department, a student can wear a VR headset to experience working as a food safety inspector. 

“The headsets display scenarios that detail normal operations in a beef processing plant,” says Soumaya Tohamy, assistant administrator for the Office of Employee Experience and Development at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “We use the same scenarios for hiring. If individuals experience this within a VR environment, they may be able to make a better decision about whether they’d like to work with us.”

For those thinking about working for FSIS, getting a sense of the tasks and environment — which can be noisy, crowded, extremely cold and occasionally bloody — is an important step in helping individuals decide whether or not they want to pursue employment.

“VR works well in helping potential and new hires familiarize themselves with the working environment,” says Tohamy. 

“Instead of watching a video or looking at photos, with the VR headset you can walk around the establishment and get a much better sense of the layout and the workflow. It’s a real advantage for training.”

EXPLORE: FEMA and the VA enhance training and therapy with VR.

VR Enables Better Emergency Management

Briggs agrees. “The original intent of AR and VR was to make workers more efficient,” he says. “Now, it’s more about how to attract a workforce that wants to get involved in the future of work and how they do their tasks.”

The FSIS also uses VR as a training tool for aspiring food inspectors. For both recruitment and training, the headset is powered by a common smartphone, which allows for easy updates and portability across­ classroom and recruiting settings. 

Scott Ledgerwood, the user experience lead at the Public Safety Communication Research Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, says that his team is focused on enabling first responders to use the Internet of Things, hardware, ­software and broadband to conduct more successful operations.

“A lot of our work with VR and AR is to build a test bed environment so we can prototype different types of systems and assess how effective they are,” he says.


The percentage of respondents who chose training as the most likely reason to use VR/AR

Source: Perkins Coie, “2020 Augmented and Virtual Reality Survey Report,” March 2020

The teams at PSCR have developed a wide variety of interfaces for EMTs, law enforcement officers and fire safety professionals, involving complex environments and tasks. Among them: performing triage, monitoring vital signs and navigating through a dark and smoky hallway. 

The VR environment simulates how first responders might be able use new and existing technology in a ­real-world situation, including audio and haptic feedback to make the ­situation as realistic as possible. An AR headset could draw on data feeds from satellites, traffic sensors or drones and overlay that information across the view of firefighters, enabling them to better evaluate a ­situation and take action. 

“If you wanted to test this ­technology in a firefighter training center, it could cost you upward of $50,000 per day,” says Ledgerwood. “Replicating something similar in VR brings the cost down significantly. Plus, you can repeat the task over and over.”

In addition to using VR equipment for testing, NIST also provides ­assistance and funding for technical development and commercialization of VR training.

“If you compare them with traditional 2D classroom materials, VR provides a much more immersive ­environment. The literature shows ­better training outputs and greater retention,” says Ledgerwood.

VIDEO: See how the Army is using augmented reality headsets to train soldiers. 

How VR Improves Safety for Miners

Jennica Bellanca is a biomechanical engineer and research lead for the Virtual Immersion and Simulation Lab, part of the mining program at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 

Collaborating with MSHA as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Bellanca has studied a wide range of VR and AR hardware and software for miners — from group training using six projectors to ­re-create a 360-degree experience to a simulator in a 10-by-10-foot cube, as well as portable head-mounted ­displays such as the Oculus Quest and the Oculus Rift.

“There are so many benefits of VR training, no matter what level,” Bellanca says. “It’s very realistic. Within the training simulations, we’ve built in lighting, the coal seam and layers of rock dust. Sound and audio cues make it an immersive ­experience, and it really taps into that cognitive piece.”

Jennica Bellanca, Biomechanical Engineer and Research Lead, Virtual Immersion and Simulation Lab, NIOSH
When you look at VR and some of the equipment needed to ­experience it, it can seem expensive, but ­compared with staging a real-life scenario, it’s cheap.”

Jennica Bellanca Biomechanical Engineer and Research Lead, Virtual Immersion and Simulation Lab, NIOSH

Bellanca collaborates with trainers and training facilities across the ­country to distribute NIOSH-developed software. She also ­collaborates with Ullrich and his team at Gillette College as both groups develop their own mine safety training software.

“When you look at VR and some of the equipment needed to ­experience it, it can seem expensive, but ­compared with staging a real-life scenario, it’s cheap, and it’s getting more affordable every day,” Bellanca says. “It’s also consistent, so you can do tracking and assessments as well as debrief.”

Ullrich agrees. “We can scan a mine and put people in dangerous ­situations, and take them to places they could never go. It doesn’t ruin equipment. Nobody gets hurt. With VR, anything is possible.”

Photo courtesy of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

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