Gillette College Virtual Reality Program Looks To Help With Mine Safety

Jan 10, 2020

Nick Ullrich is setting me up in a generic office at the Gillette College Technical Education Center. Ullrich, a safety instructor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) training program at the college, has been working on creating a new way to train miners for about a year.

"The goggles when you put them on, this doesn't go all the way around the back of your head, but it fits on the top. And there are two straps here that kind of loosen or tighten, so I'll just let you get that comfortable," he tells me.

I'm pulling on a headpiece that kind of looks like fancy, high-tech ski goggles. A laptop is on the desk in front of me. Ullrich explains the program as he hands me a small controller.

"Now you are in the part where all of this equipment is. So you can look around 360 degrees," he says. "So you're in a giant warehouse with lots of equipment all around you. All of this is stuff you'd see on a mine site, stuff you would operate," he said.

Just like that, I'm a virtual world that teaches miners about blind spots from 10 different pieces of equipment at surface mines, ranging from a dragline to a water truck.

The program uses virtual reality, 360 degree photos and drone footage to take miners to the site, put them in the driver's seat, and then allow them to travel around the equipment to see the hazards they can't see from the cab.

Ullrich says recognizing those hazards as an equipment operator or any other mine worker can be life-saving.

"I can tell you every year there are fatalities that come from somebody being parked or getting into the blind spot of heavy equipment. But there are more than just the fatalities that we run into, but we don't hear about those because what gets shared is the fatalities. So, it is a huge deal," he says.

In 2018 and 2019, there were 12 total fatalities nationwide that involved mobile equipment, according to MSHA. That's why developing better safety training is important for miners.

This program can help with awareness for the workers, but mines have developed their own strategies to keep people safe around heavy equipment, like using radios. MSHA recommends the equipment have collision avoidance and warning systems or things like flags and lights for smaller vehicles.

New workers on a mine site are required to go through a 24 hour training on lots of topics including safety. Then every year, miners have to go through an eight-hour refresher course.

Ullrich says for his program to be effective, he wanted to make it as realistic as possible.

"It was important to show an actual piece of equipment. It was important to me to show the actual cab of the equipment so that people aren't just thinking, 'Oh well, this is just a computer so really are the blind spots that bad in the real stuff.' It was important to have the real stuff so they could see," he says.

Back in the virtual reality program, a water truck's tires go over five feet above my head when I stand directly next to the wheel.

"So that's actual size or really, really close. It might not be to the inch but it's really, really close," Ullrich says.

He tells me to hop into the truck then shows me all the ways a driver could easily miss seeing a person or truck right in front of them.

"This is a 360 photo of the cab of a water truck. The point is you can look out the windows. You can use the mirror on your left. And what can you see? You don't see much. You don't see anything around you," he says.

I teleport to a different perspective.

"Now you're outside the cab of that water truck on the deck. And now as you look on the ground, you start to see some stuff. All of that stuff was there while you were in the cab," he says.

As I make my way around the truck, I see workers, pick-up trucks and vans that I could have hit if I'd driven away.

Ullrich says the blind spot training isn't just focused on the people who would be driving the equipment. It's for everyone on site, so they know what the drivers can and cannot see.

Ullrich got the idea for the program just about a year ago after attending a conference where a group used virtual reality for underground coal mining. He thought the same technology could be used in the surface mining that happens in the Powder River Basin.

After researching, Ullrich worked with a computer programmer over the summer to develop the program. He also reached out to local mines to see if he could take drone and 360 degree photos of actual, local equipment and sites his trainees might be using.

One of those was Dry Fork Mine, just north of Gillette. The mine's safety coordinator Lora Dilley worked with Ullrich and the mine's equipment managers.

"I think it's more beneficial than the actual tour of the mine because they can see from the seat of the haul truck what you cannot see. And when you do the introduction to work environment, they don't get that. But they would get that in this virtual reality," Dilley said.

The program has gotten some national attention, as well. This past October, Ullrich and Gillette College won a mine safety award from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health for technology innovation.

Still, Ullrich says that he wants to expand the program. First, he wants to get all of the gear he needs for a full class of students to do the training. Then, he wants to look at more safety situations, such as mine tours, that would benefit from virtual reality experience.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu.