BRADLEY KING, PhD, CIH, is secretary of AIHA and board liaison to the Technology Initiatives Strategic Advisory Group.
MICHAEL GROH, CIH, CSP, is the director of health and safety at GE Appliances and vice chair of AIHA’s Emerging Digital Technology Committee. Send feedback to The Synergist.
New Virtual and Augmented Realities for OEHS Professionals
Emerging technologies are becoming more readily available for use by occupational and environmental health and safety professionals as tools to ensure safe and healthy work environments. These technologies include virtual reality (VR) and the closely related augmented reality (AR).
VR and AR are just two of several workplace technology solutions that the National Safety Council (NSC) has identified in its Work-to-Zero program, an ambitious project intended to help workplaces and OEHS professionals identify and implement innovative technology solutions to eliminate workplace fatalities. NSC describes VR training technology as “typically us[ing] a head-mounted display to immerse a user into a computer-generated environment, often with a full 360-degree view.” In contrast, AR, also known as mixed reality, “allows for the overlay of video, sounds, or graphics to help train or inform users while they experience a real-world view or interact with objects.”
A CASE STUDY AT BOEING NSC notes several benefits of using VR and AR safety training, including that the technologies may allow workers to experience lifelike scenarios and may limit the need to face real-world hazards or use resources such as heavy machinery. A case study accessible on NSC’s Work to Zero website highlights the use of AR training tools by the Boeing Co.
Boeing introduced a self-contained AR headset that allowed users to manipulate projected 3D holograms. At this time, Boeing was working on a project that required significant rewiring to the lower deck of the company’s 767 aircraft, where the company’s electricians lacked space to lay out printed schematics. Prior to use of the AR headset, electricians had to cross the work area to the place where the schematics were laid out, memorize the configuration, return to their places, and complete their tasks from memory. Due to work being performed by other employees, moving across the work area posed risks for falls, trips, lacerations, and potential head injuries.
The electricians used the headset to view aircraft schematics and safety messages without needing to leave their work area. Reduced risk of serious injuries and fatalities, improved productivity and work quality, and reduced time to complete the job were all cited as benefits of implementing the technology. Lessons learned included the necessity of training employees in safe on-site AR use; creating policies and procedures to address length of AR use, cleaning, storage, and data privacy; and using trial periods to address unforeseen issues, such as AR technology’s impact on personal protective equipment and compatibility with information technology.
GE Appliances opened a virtual reality lab at its Louisville, Kentucky manufacturing training center in March 2020. The lab allows employees to experience and train on procedures, such as lockout/tagout, in the virtual world before going on the shop floor. Courtesy of GE Appliances.
As GE Appliances digitizes its factories and distribution centers across the country, virtual reality is being used to train employees how to use fork trucks and attachments. The interactive training immerses operators in a computer-generated environment closely resembling the job. In addition to safety advantages, the technology has cut training time in half for new operators. Courtesy of GE Appliances.
AIHA MEMBERS’ EXPERIENCES WITH VR AND AR AIHA members are also incorporating VR and AR into their health and safety practices. One AIHA member, who wished not to be named in this article, described how AR was being introduced at his employer’s manufacturing sites to assist workers in servicing, performing maintenance on, and troubleshooting complex automated equipment. AR technology helped the company’s onsite technicians respond to equipment downtime in a timely manner and reduced the travel costs for external vendors to respond to issues. Instead of visiting the work site in person, vendors provided remote support to technicians in real time through audio and video streaming.
Michael Groh, one of the authors of this column, related that his employer, GE Appliances, used process simulation tools to identify potential ergonomic or safety concerns. These tools allowed the OEHS team to correct those issues before the assembly line or fabrication equipment were manufactured or as part of continuous improvement to the workplace.
GE Appliances also used VR to augment the company’s powered industrial vehicle training by giving trainees experience with driving vehicles before they moved on to hands-on training. The company is looking at implementing similar processes for training employees to operate overhead cranes and use lockout/tagout procedures.
In addition, the company deployed a commercially available AI ergonomics assessment tool to the company’s frontline OEHS technicians, which helped them make quick and powerful assessments. Groh reported that the AI engine quickly provided analysis of employees’ postures.
BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES OF VR AND AR In the estimation of the anonymous AIHA member, benefits of the company’s use of AR technology included reduced travel costs, training, administrative work managing external vendors, and downtime spent waiting for vendors to arrive. AR assistance also empowered in-house technicians to service equipment in a compliant manner. This was preferable to visits by external vendors as in-house technicians had received robust training on lockout/tagout procedures and were familiar with the site’s norms, safety culture, and requirements for reporting and investigating incidents.
However, this AIHA member also found that using AR headsets in a manufacturing environment contributed to employees being distracted while walking and talking. It was also difficult for employees to correctly wear hard hats, bump caps, and safety glasses while using AR. AR speakers and headphones contributed to noise exposure in high-noise areas. Employees’ physical and spatial awareness of hazards within equipment were reduced while using headsets. It could be difficult to manage culpability if equipment was damaged while in-house technicians were receiving instructions from vendors or if employees incorrectly applied their guidance. This AIHA member reported that, as a result of these challenges, AR use is limited to select lower-risk manufacturing environments, such as packaging and assembly, and restricted in higher-risk areas, such as chemical processes that require explosion-proof or automatic testing equipment.
Groh likewise found that implementing AR and VR technology resulted in both benefits and challenges. The benefits included better up-front planning for process changes or new equipment, reduced costs of altering equipment after manufacture, and faster ergonomic assessments without using more powerful but more labor-intensive ergonomic assessment tools.
When simulating work processes, Groh found that the more detailed that the company made its training simulations, the better they reflected the real world. This means that the investment in time for more effective process simulations is significant.
Finally, VR training caused some trainees to experience inner ear disturbances or dizziness. These employees had to move straight to hands-on powered industrial vehicle training without using the VR training tool.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR OEHS PROFESSIONALS The anonymous AIHA member recommended that OEHS professionals seeking to adopt and implement AR technologies should create written procedures and training programs that outline expectations for PPE use for workers using AR on the manufacturing floor. These expectations should aim to prevent distracted walking and talking while using AR, similar to policies that may already be in place for cell phones and personal radios. Technicians receiving remote instructions should also be empowered to stop their work in the event they are instructed to do something unsafe or that they are uncomfortable performing.
Prior to deploying the technology, Groh recommended that OEHS teams conduct benchmarking with other firms and partner with knowledgeable vendors.
To help implement VR and AR technologies, NSC has developed the safety innovation journey tool showcased on the Work to Zero homepage. This tool walks users through assessing workplace hazards and risks, identifying technology solutions that reduce those risks, determining the readiness of an organization to adopt them, and making business cases to leadership. It includes a safety technology calculator that compares the costs of continuing with business as usual to the operational costs after investing in safety technology. Through proper planning and training, incorporating lessons learned from others, and using resources like these, OEHS professionals can start their journeys toward using VR and AR technologies to significantly benefit the health and safety of workers.

National Safety Council: “Safety Technology Investment Calculator.”
National Safety Council: “Virtual or Augmented Reality.”
National Safety Council: “Work to Zero.”