Construction zones are often adorned with bright signs and require hardhats, safety glasses, and the right shoes. Workers must be certified and trained to work in this environment before their first day on the job.
But even with care and precautions, construction still has fatal accidents. According to the US Department of Labor, the industry accounted for 971 of all worker deaths, or about 20 percent of all worker fatalities, in 2017.
Jacksonville-based Haskell — an architecture, engineering, and construction firm with 1,400 employees globally — wanted to explore ways to reduce those grim numbers. One new approach: Haskell’s Hazard Elimination Risk Oversight (HERO), a VR safety simulation, which seeks to train employees on potentially dangerous situations.
“I saw the opportunity, [to] design [a] game design to…help [employees]…recognize hazardous situations,” says Hamzah Shanbari, a Manager of Construction Technology and Innovation at Haskell. “It’s literally just the virtual job site that you’re looking around, you feel like you are there because the headset mimics everything… And the person can go around…anywhere in the job site, and identify any hazards or safe situations that they see.”
Shanbari began working on HERO in 2016, shortly after he moved to the privately-owned company. Shanbari brought a new experience set to the company: As part of his dissertation at the University of Florida, he developed a video game intended for construction management students. In the simulation, the player must keep up with the schedule and resources needed at a virtual construction site.
After moving to Haskell, Shanbari recognized an opportunity to reinvent safety education, transforming it from passive videos viewed on a screen to a more interactive experience.
“The safety training that we [had was]…very static videos that we ask all our employees [to watch]…and then certifications [following] that, so that they can go to the job site,” Shanbari says. “The topics are very heavy…talking about the specific height and weight restrictions…OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulations and whatnot. That’s that stuff that needs to be introduced, but the delivery method of it was very boring.”
In HERO, a VR headset transports employees to a virtual construction site. According to Shanbari, there are animated people at work and ambient construction noises playing in the background. The player can then walk around the job site and click on objects and people. He or she will then be prompted to put the scenario in a category: Is it safe or unsafe? A proctor overseeing the virtual assessment will then discuss the person’s performance.
According to Shanbari, he initially wanted to develop HERO completely in-house. However, finding the time to design a game and complete daily tasks proved to be a challenge.
“On top of my full-time job here doing research and technology analysis and evaluation, [building HERO] was just not happening,” Shanbari admits. “I tried to allocate a block sometime during the week, just focus on that. But then, even if I did that…if I go away from it for a week or two, and then come back, it’s really hard to pick up that momentum.”
HERO was built in two iterations. When designing the first version of the game, Shanbari brought in freelancers.
“What we found is after we finished the first iteration, it was really hard to keep track of [which freelancer] is doing what,” Shanbari says. “Freelancers…cost a lot of money, and then, they’re really hard to get a hold of after delivery. It wasn’t going where we wanted it to go, and we just called it done.”
The team needed one point of contact in order to increase efficiency, Shanbari says. Haskell’s Director of Strategy and Technology, Cutler Knupp suggested that the team partner with Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Three students from the university’s computer science department were assigned to work on HERO’s second iteration.
“We contacted them, and we gave them the first iteration that we had. We gave them the vision…and they took that and they ran,” Shanbari says. “And [with]…very little supervision and feedback, [we were] able to get…a bigger kind of leap to where we were headed with this.”
The game continues to evolve, as Shanbari’s team works on the third version of HERO. Their objective is to make the game “as friendly as possible” to increase adoption.
“We’re seeing some very, very mixed reactions. So somebody would go in there and say, ‘This is like…the coolest thing that I’ve seen so far within Haskell.’ Other folks were like, ‘Why am I doing this?'” Shanbari says. “We’re still working through that…”
When asked to share advice, Shanbari recommends that innovators be on the lookout for ways that new technologies can help improve today’s operations.
“There’s always so many different ways to change and improve on processes and workflows,” he says, “to make things more efficient, or better or safer…whatever you’re solving for.”