How to improve safety training in the mining industry with VR

by | Sep 14, 2022

Mines are dangerous. It’s a working environment with heavy machinery, raised surfaces, and poisonous gas. It’s impossible to remove all the hazards of a mine site. It’s dangerous by nature.

But what we can do is change how we respond to these hazards. Through training, preparation and procedures we can prevent bad outcomes like death, pain and suffering, or at the least make them as infrequent as possible. We owe it to each and every miner, and their loved one, to do more than try. We need to succeed.

The Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS) report for 2020-21 showed there were two fatalities and 402 safety incidents classified as “serious”.

VR training has fantastic potential to get that number closer to zero than it’s ever been.

VR can accelerate learning, increase information retention, and improve visibility into miner competency. Not to mention, it’s more affordable than onsite training that can be conducted from anywhere, a tremendous benefit to the FIFO workforce.

Virtual practice makes perfect

BHP trains miners on a virtual twin of the Broadmeadow Mine in Queensland’s Bowen Basin using Virtual Reality headsets.

Before going underground, miners can practice their roles as either a Shearer or Chock operator, in a zero risk environment. They can familiarize themselves with the layout of the mine, and practice responding to situations they hope to never come up against.

“For example, we have a roof cavity scenario where the coal falls through the flippers from above. While this isn’t something that happens regularly, it can occur, so if we can prepare our people to manage the situation in a safe environment, they will be better prepared to deal with it.” – David Thorpe, Longwall Operator.

After purchasing additional headsets there’s extra cost to train 100 or 1000 people at once. There’s no logistical overhead to training someone from the comfort of an airconditioned office in Brisbane or Melbourne. There’s no reason future operators can’t train at home either.

Types of training compatible with VR

  • Drill rig training simulation
  • Open pit simulation
  • Underground hazard identification and barring down training simulation
  • Instron rock testing simulation
  • Accident reconstruction
  • A library of three-dimensional mining equipment
  • Ventilation survey and real-time monitoring simulations and
  • Virtual mining methods.

Faster learning and improved retention

Virtual reality can teach in 1.5 days what it takes 10 days to learn in a classroom. If you’ve never tried virtual reality, that sounds like a tall claim. After you complete your first VR training module it seems obvious.

Researchers at the University of Researchers at the University of Maryland conducted one of the first in-depth analyzes of VR training.

They had a group of students learn something in VR, while another learned something on a screen. Afterwards, they gave both groups the same test. 40 percent of participants in the study scored at least 10 percent higher on learning retention when using VR than when using a computer or tablet. The researchers concluded that people remember information better if it is presented to them in a virtual environment.

A recent study sponsored by the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) found that $1.1 billion spent on mining training. $570 million (over half) went to salaries for trainers, for apprentices and trainees, and for staff attending training. If even a 5% reduction in cost is possible, which should be more than achievable considering everything we’ve discussed, that’s fifty-five million a year.

VR training simulations never expire. In fact it’s typically easier/better to update an older system, add new models and environments, than it is to start from scratch. This all means that the large up front investment in VR training pays for itself over and over.

Measurable competency and logistics

Virtual reality simulations can create all kinds of logistics that can better measure competency.

How long did it take an operator to complete a task? What did they struggle with? What mistakes did they make? Now imagine that thousands of people are undertaking this same simulation. From the patterns in data you’ll learn what new recruits struggle with. What needs extra attention. If there is a tendency to reach for one incorrect tool instead of the correct one, that can be addressed.

In a physical orientation, questions go unanswered, concerns unaddressed. Information is missed as a truck drives past or can’t penetrate a worried brain.

In VR, there’s no risk, no pressure, and infinite do-overs. It’s rewindable and plausible. A common type of simulation we build, let’s an instructor guide the trainee. There’s no substitute for the experience you’ll get onsite, but there’s something to be said for hearing an instructor voice through crystal clear earphones, and not shouted over the roar of trucks.

Unlimited access to expensive unavailable equipment

The logistics and time required to rotate trainees through all the equipment they’ll need to be familiar with is immense.

Digitalising work instruction is a core pillar of industry 4.0 and in the mining industry that means building a library of three-dimensional mining equipment.

Virtual reality isn’t the library, nor is it the computer simulation that allows a trainee to operate it. VR is the most immersive window into that digital world your existing computer systems are capable of creating and hosting.

There’s looking at the controls of a loader on a computer screen, and then there’s experiencing them in VR from a first person point of view. Modern VR headsets have hand tracking and/or controllers that are so accurate you can turn the page of a book, or sign your name. All of the switches, dials, and knobs can be operated in the virtual environment. After 10 minutes in a simulation like this, you stop thinking about it as a virtual reality.

When all sensory inputs are telling the brain it’s driving a loader, it starts to believe it is.

Most manufacturers will either have 3D models of their equipment that can be loaded into a VR simulation, or they have detailed specifications that make it trivial to create one, provided you have the right skill set.

A benefit to training on 3D models is that you can train employees on new equipment before it even leaves the factory, which dramatically shortens the time to operation.

Let’s wrap this up

VR training is faster, more affordable, and has better learning outcomes than traditional training. It’s risk free, can be conducted from anywhere on the planet, and with any machinery a trainee will ever need. In a high risk industry like mining, which spends over a $1 billion on training staff there’s a very real reason to consider VR if you aren’t already

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