Highways England and joint venture main contractor BMV chose virtual reality (VR) training from Nationwide Platforms to help ensure safe working at height while repairing the M5 Oldbury Viaduct in Birmingham.
The £100m project is believed to be the largest concrete repair project by value ever carried out in Britain. Measuring 3.2 kilometres in length and up to 30 metres wide, the late 1960s Oldbury viaduct carries a large section of the M5 motorway through greater Birmingham, and was in need of urgent repair.
With much of the work taking place five metres above the ground, and beneath the viaduct deck, the use of access platforms was chosen as the safest method to carry out work at height where scaffolding was not the best option. In order to ensure the safety of all personnel on site, challenges around operator competency, machine familiarisation and operator entrapment needed addressing.
Thus, in addition to supplying MEWPs to the project, Nationwide Platforms supplied the first VR simulators in the UK: these realistically mimic the sensation of operating boom and scissor lifts, allowing operators to improve their skills before they head out onto site. This is the first major project of its kind to use the breakthrough VR technology in this way.
Each VR simulator unit comprises a replica platform basket and control panel, like those used on the real platforms, as well as a full-motion-tracking VR headset. Nationwide Platforms partnered with Canadian VR training developer, Serious Labs to help ensure the simulators were appropriate for the UK: hundreds of man-hours were invested in development, including customer interviews and trials, and reviewing hundreds of accidents and near misses to compile a list of the most common mistakes, which allowed Nationwide Platforms to storyboard the scenarios for Serious Labs.
Featuring more than 30 scenarios, the simulators cover a range of applications – including different ground conditions, restricted access, overhead hazards, complex manoeuvres, machine levelling, and loading and unloading; and performance and learning metrics provide live feedback on driving skills, behaviour and safe operation to the operator.
The VR technology allows qualified operators to upskill their familiarisation with MEWPs and refine their skills in a safe environment where there is no risk to themselves, others or the infrastructure, with immediate feedback on the assessment.
The Nationwide Platforms team trained a total of 33 IPAF-qualified operators and a further 10 staff from BMV. Furthermore, 17 senior Highways England staff familiarised themselves with MEWP operations via the VR training.
The access specialist went one step further and limited the make and model of the boom and scissor lifts on site to help simplify machine and operator familiarisation. This not only reduced the potential confusion around controls, which often differ from platform to platform, but also reduced the amount of different pre- and post-use checks and emergency lowering training required.
Jeremy Jowett, Nationwide Platforms UK Commercial Director, said: “We have a strong relationship with the BMV JV and safety is a key focus for both parties. We’re delighted they were the first to use the VR technology, which perfectly bridges the gap between theory and practical training. The ability for operators to make mistakes in a safe and controlled environment not only prepares them for how to react to danger, but also provides them with valuable experience that we feel will reduce the number of potential accidents on site, as well as damage to buildings and equipment.”