Amey’s innovation manager, Simon Grundy, explains how the company is using virtual reality to make its workforce safer
In 2015-16, there were zero workforce fatalities for the first time since the ORR Rail Safety Statistics series began. There were, however, 6,597 workforce injuries on the mainline – 157 of those being major accidents.
It is also well documented 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.
einrich’s triangle, for example, suggests that for every 330 unsafe acts, 29 will result in minor injuries and one in a major or lost-time incident. But why does it take an incident for an individual to change how they act?
We’re born into this world with limited knowledge and rapidly develop an understanding of the environment we now and live through interaction and our experiences. In school, we’re taught that we have five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. In reality, 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. The truth is we often don’t perceive risk to ourselves and therefore end up learning from our mistakes. In high risk working environments such as a live rail line, or working at height, there can be potentially fatal consequences if you act unsafely.
Investing in technology
For us, the safety of our employees is of paramount importance, injuries aren’t inevitable. So how can we eliminate risk to our people and improve safety behaviours. The answer lies in technology and especially the learning we can take from the gaming and entertainment industry, which is why we’re investing in disruptive technology.
The increasing demands placed on the ageing network mean that inspections of railway assets, such as bridges, may need to be carried out more regularly. This can often mean our employees are required to work at height or in confined spaces which subsequently presents a safety risk.
Together with a world-leading technology firm, VTOL, we’re developing a unique flying wing drone, which will change the way assets are inspected and reduce the requirement for inspectors to have to work at height. Drone technology complements hands-on inspection techniques and also enables examinations of areas that have previously been inaccessible.
This was the case recently when Amey was involved in inspection works to the Britannia Bridge in Anglesey. By using drones, we were able to keep the bridge open, prevent disruption to travellers as well as removing risk to those carrying out inspections at height.
A safety game changer
The safety of our people is not a game, but with the advancement in game graphics, screen technology and more affordable portable hardware, virtual reality offers our industry a way to remove risk whether something is thought to be too dangerous, expensive or impractical, by simulating an activity before it is conducted.
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 can present with false data, aligned to the other sensory experiences, the more immersive and real the situation becomes.
At Amey, along with most other organisations in the rail industry, we take a zero tolerance to the statement ‘Accidents can happen and there is nothing we can do about it’. Our campaign ‘Target Zero’ has been extremely successful and places accountability on everyone to raise close calls throughout the business no matter how small. Target zero is a way of life, encouraging people to take the attitude home with them.
Targeting zero accidents from dusk till dawn
With around 10 per cent of our employees working night shifts, our approach to safety doesn’t just stop at the end of a shift. 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.
By trialling wearable technology and using virtual reality, we have taken steps to address this and remove fatigue-related incidents by ensuring our employees are safe from when they get up in the morning to when they return home at night.
Through our membership with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), we’ve worked with Holovis – a company that primarily creates immersive and mixed reality solutions for theme park attractions – and, together with one of our rail suppliers, Keltbray, we’ve created a driver simulator.
The simulator uses virtual reality technology to emphasise the consequences of driver fatigue and helps users understand the catastrophic incidents that can result from making the decision to get behind a wheel when fatigued.
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 also 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, allowing 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.
In an environment where our employees are exposed to high risks every day, maintaining the rail network to help keep the UK moving, 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.
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.