Virtual Reality Can Help Predict Workers’ Behavior During Emergency Evacuations, IOSH Says

Virtual reality can provide valuable insights into workers’ behavior during emergency evacuations and may improve safety awareness, new research has shown.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham, funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), developed a multi-sensory virtual environment (MS VE) to see how workers respond in evacuation scenarios and if sensory stimuli, such as smell and touch, can help to improve safety outcomes.


As part of the research, two scenarios were developed: a building fire and evacuation and an engine disassembly task with a fluid leak and response actions. As participants using the software approached a virtual fire, they felt heat from three 2kW heaters and smelt smoke from a scent diffuser.

The research shows workers felt more immersed in the multi-sensory virtual environment than those in a comparable audio-visual virtual environment. “Health and safety training can fail to motivate and engage employees and can lack relevance to real-life contexts,” said Dr. Glyn Lawson from University of Nottingham’s Faculty of Engineering .”Our research suggests that virtual environments can help address these issues, by increasing trainees’ engagement and willingness to participate in further training. There are also business benefits associated with the use of virtual environment training, such as the ability to deliver training at or near the workplace and at a time that is convenient to the employee.”

Previous research on human behavior during real-world fire incidents has shown that a lack of knowledge relating to the spread and movement of fire often means that occupants are unprepared and misjudge appropriate actions.

The new research suggests that multi-sensory virtual environments can provide valuable insights into how workers act during emergency evacuations and where gaps in knowledge might exist.In the first study of behavioral validity, 52 participants were recruited and instructed to navigate towards a meeting room in the virtual environment, where they began a series of tasks. A virtual fire was started, and participants’ behaviors were recorded.

A post-trial questionnaire captured subjective ratings and verbal feedback. The results gave evidence for a greater level of belief that they were participating in a real emergency when experiencing a multi-sensory virtual environment with heat and smell.

A second study looked at the training effectiveness of the virtual environment. 50 participants were recruited and experienced either VE or PowerPoint training with or without multi-sensory simulation.

The VE training performed better than PowerPoint in several areas, including knowledge retention and ratings of engagement and attitude towards health and safety.

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