Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Instructor Nick Ullrich is refining mine safety training with his new, award-winning virtual reality software training program.
Sitting behind the wheel of a haul truck nearly 20 feet off the ground, there’s a lot a person can’t see, despite the 360-degree view through the cab windows. The man in the blue hard hat leaning against the hood of his pickup about 50 feet behind the truck’s back wheel, for example. Or the four men conferring in a huddle just to the left of the driver’s door underneath the extended sideview mirrors. A wrong move in either direction might mean squashing a full-size pickup like an ant under the massive 14-foot tires. Or worse, fatally injuring a co-worker.
Accidents like this are exactly what Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Instructor Nick Ullrich is trying to prevent with his new virtual reality software training program. Where once he was relegated to teaching from a book with a few rudimentary, dated MSHA safety videos, now he can literally transport a trainee into the driver’s seat of 10 pieces of mining equipment, including a haul truck, shovel, dozer, or loader among others. The software can also provide trainees with a bird’s eye view from above, or conversely on the ground, so a trainee can view the equipment from multiple angles. The new software can even place a trainee more than 220 feet in the air on the boom of a dragline, a gut-dropping feeling so real that it causes those with a fear of heights to grip their armrests in terror.
Using virtual reality software has opened up a whole new mode of training that allows Ullrich to create a hands-on learning experience for the trainee that not only teaches, but also provides the physical, sensory experience of learning.
“The actual footage from a mine and the specific piece of equipment helps them understand exactly where those blind spots are and how big they can be,” Ullrich said. “It’s this sensory experience that sticks with them.”
From his second-story office in the Industry Safety Training Center wing in the Gillette College Tech Center, Ullrich slipped on a pair of Vive HTC virtual reality googles and demonstrated how the software works. With a push of a toggle button, he was zoomed into the front seat of a cab of a dozer looking across the jagged seams of a coal mine where a white pickup was parked on the far edge of the screen. A few more clicks and Ullrich was looking down at the tops of a cluster of hardhats on the ground.
Demonstrating the viewpoints from multiple angles can also show trainees the objects and people they otherwise couldn’t see from behind the wheel, he explained. It’s this visual that Ullrich thinks goes well beyond any information he can teach out of a standard textbook. Yes, a trainee can memorize the safe distances in feet and inches from multiple angles, but seeing it first-hand via virtual reality, literally puts the trainee in the driver’s seat with a realistic view.
As a former miner, Ullrich knows about the hazards of working in a surface mine. Safety-wise, coal mining is one of those fields where accidents, when they happen, can be both costly and deadly. MSHA documents accidents in three categories, including occurrences with lost workdays, occurrences with no lost workdays, and on-the-job fatalities. Between January and June of 2019, there were 20 nonfatal accidents with lost workdays in Wyoming surface mines and five injuries with no lost work time, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Labor, with no fatalities during that time.
Most of the fatalities in mining occur in the underground mines in the southeast and east, though over the years, several miners have also been killed in Wyoming underground and surface mines, including just under 10 deaths in Campbell County over the past two decades.
The most recent fatality at a Wyoming coal mine was in September 2017 at the Bridger underground mine near Rock Springs after a miner was crushed under a slab of coal.
Ullrich hopes that his new virtual reality software will go a long way in preventing such accidents. He came up with the idea for the training program after attending a MSHA conference in which he was introduced to similar software training program for underground mines. He came home and broached the idea to his boss, Jim Stratton, who approved just over $40,000 in MSHA grant money for the project, and three months later, he and University of Wyoming computer science graduate and programmer, Jake Claytor, cranked out a working prototype. Ullrich in large part credits Claytor as being the brains behind the operation while he just came up with the concepts. The pair partnered with Black Thunder and Dry Fork mines to take on-site photographs of the equipment and mine footage featured in the program, including overhead drone footage as well as shots from the ground. In the next phase of the project, Ullrich hopes to replace the 360-degree photos with more realistic scans to make the virtual reality experience even more authentic.
Per MSHA standards, a new coal miner trainee must undergo 24 hours, or three eight-hour days, of training prior to their first day of work. Seasoned coal miners are also required to complete an 8-hour refresher course every year. Additionally, new miners have to take a tour of the mine before actually stepping on site, which is also something UIlrich hopes to be able to facilitate via his new software program.
So far, he and his team have trained about 60 new and current miners with the three computers and goggles they have on site at Gillette College. By next year, he’d like to have 30 fully operational computer stations, complete with laptops and VR goggles, which are less expensive than one might think at about $1,000 to $2,000 per computer and anywhere between $400 to $900 for the googles.
For the most part, Ullrich said the new trainees are enjoying the new software, even the older workers who initially seemed put off by the new technology.
Not only can they physically jump into the cabs of the equipment, they can even pick up small Hot Wheel-size, demo versions of the equipment from their desk seats in a virtual classroom where they can also view videos, take tests, or transport themselves into a piece of equipment or to the top of the dragline.
“Having them experience it for themselves and showing what it actually looks like from up there makes a huge impact on their memory,” Ullrich said.
The industry is also applauding the new software. In the past year, Ullrich and his team have been awarded the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Mine Safety and Health Technology Innovations Award as well as the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) National Mine Health and Safety Academy Training Innovation Award.
“This type of project fits the category of innovation award perfectly,” North Wyoming Community College District President Dr. Walt Tribley said of the software. “It’s out-of-the-box thinking like this, applicable to many heavy equipment situations, that will save lives.”
Along with improving his software, Ullrich is looking forward to sharing it with other states who follow similar MSHA training programs. Because it’s grant-funded, he can give it away for free to other groups on a simple thumb drive.
In the meantime, it’s made training much more fun for everyone, including himself, as he demonstrated picking up a toy-size truck and turning it over on the screen to view from all angles, one of his design concepts that he was inspired by from one of his favorite television shows “Supernatural.”
“It’s fun imagining things out of thin air and watching them come to life on screen,” he said with a grin. “It’s pretty powerful.”