Virtual reality can improve safety awareness during emergency evacuations

23 Oct 2019

Virtual reality can provide valuable insights into workers’ behaviour during emergency evacuations and may improve safety awareness, new research funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has shown.

As part of the study researchers from the University of Nottingham developed a multisensory virtual environment using a VR headset, computer software and heat and

scent diffusers to see how workers respond in evacuation scenarios and if sensory stimuli can help to improve safety outcomes.

The research suggests virtual reality training could offer a range of benefits for business, including increasing engagement and attitudes towards OSH training and improved retention of knowledge.

Two scenarios were developed: a building fire and evacuation and an engine disassembly task with a fluid leak and response actions. The research shows workers felt more immersed in the multisensory virtual environment than those in a comparable audio-visual virtual environment, and the observed behaviours provided valuable insights into how workers act during emergency evacuations and where gaps in knowledge might exist.

Health and safety training can fail to motivate and engage employees and can lack relevance to real-life contexts,” says 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.”

In the first study, 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’ behaviours 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 multisensory virtual environment with heat and smell.

“The wheels are turning so that virtual and smart learning is increasingly engrained in the workplace and everyday life,” says Mary Ogungbeje, Research Manager at IOSH. “Technology is continuously advancing and in many cases becoming more affordable, so this study gives us a taste of what’s to come. By improving training strategies with the use of technology and simulated sensory experiences, we are heading in a direction where the workforce will not just enjoy a more immersive and interesting training course but participate in an effective learning experience, so they are better prepared and equipped to stay safe, healthy and well at work.”


Worldwide, 60,000 workers die on construction sites every year. IOSH’s world-class courses, Safety, Health and Environment for Construction Managers and Safety, Health and Environment for Construction Workers aim to implement best practice, ensure organisations meet their safety, health and environment obligations, and gives delegates the skills required to create a safe work environment.


These two courses have now been approved by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and Build UK, which means IOSH’s courses are aligned to the BuildUK Training Standard and employers can access the CITB levy.


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