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Virginia Tech faculty design a safety regimen that has resulted in decreased injuries

Through a safety program co-developed by Virginia Tech College of Engineering faculty, thousands of employees at delivery giant UPS have learned to do something they probably thought came naturally: fall.

   

At his lab in Whittemore Hall on the Virginia Tech campus, associate professor Thurmon Lockhart (left) studies how people walk and how they prepare for and react to falling. At his lab in Whittemore Hall on the Virginia Tech campus, associate professor Thurmon Lockhart (left) studies how people walk and how they prepare for and react to falling.

With the average UPS delivery driver making more than 100 deliveries each day in sometimes wet and/or snowy weather, or on slippery tile floors, the danger of losing one’s footing is real. The direct cost of U.S. annual workplace injuries due to slips and falls is estimated at $6 billion, according to a 2003 study by Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. Those costs are expected to cross $44 billion by 2020, according to the study. That’s roughly equal to Alaska’s gross domestic product for 2008. The injured worker also endures potential pain and suffering from the fall. 

But if you’re trained to position your body during a fall, injuries can be prevented or mitigated. Handled in a controlled lab environment, such lessons are known as slip perturbation training, said Thurmon Lockhart, an associate professor with the Virginia Tech Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

   

A UPS employee is strapped into a slip simulator at the company's facility in Landover, Md. The simulator is a replica of a lab training apparatus created by Virginia Tech College of Engineering faculty. Image courtesy of UPS. A UPS employee is strapped into a slip simulator at the company's facility in Landover, Md. The simulator is a replica of a lab training apparatus created by Virginia Tech College of Engineering faculty. Image courtesy of UPS.

“Slip perturbation training can improve balance and reduce future fall accidents,” he said.

This is where the department's slip simulator comes into play. The simulator is a large, parallel framework that a person walks under, while a computer-controlled, linoleum-covered floor shifts, causing the walker to lose his or her footing. Rather than fall, though, the person is harnessed to the frame’s top section and stays upright. The walker instinctively learns to catch himself or herself, Lockhart said.

The simulator is one of the reasons why UPS came to Virginia Tech in 2006 as part of a new driver training program known as UPS Integrad. The company has a long history of collaboration with professor John Casali with a focus on driver ergonomics. This relationship between faculty and UPS is intended to help the carrier train its new, younger employees in safe walking practices.

“Thirty percent of people fell on the job during their first year on the job,” Lockhart said.

Stephen Jones, corporate learning and development manager with UPS, said he found his first experience on the simulator so “eye-opening” that he now has two replicas at the UPS training facility in Landover, Md. There, thousands of employees strap in and lose their balance, but not their control.

“It’s something that demonstrates we’re trying to simulate the working environment as realistically as we can,” Jones said. “We try to have people experience the consequences in a controlled environment, where they cannot get hurt.”

   

A UPS employee learns to keep her balance on moving, slippery surfaces using this slip simulator. Image courtesy of UPS. A UPS employee learns to keep her balance on moving, slippery surfaces using this slip simulator. Image courtesy of UPS.

Falling wasn’t the only instigator in UPS’s training efforts. Some drivers were landing on their feet too hard while exiting the brown trucks. Some were also pulling themselves up incorrectly into the truck. This resulted in the development of a model UPS truck that has sensors inside the door. Employees are taught to make controlled entries and exits as part of their overall safe work methods training.

 “The program’s goal was to reduce 15 percent of the accidents and 20 percent of the injuries for first-year drivers,” Jones said. “We reduced those numbers a significant amount more than that percentage.”

The project was a collaborative effort among Lockhart, Casali, associate professor Tonya Smith-Jackson, Kari Babski-Reeves (now at Mississippi State University), and other Virginia Tech human factors engineering and ergonomics faculty. It was designed to serve other companies, while also reaching older generations.

   

This model UPS truck is used to train employees in how to safely enter and exit the truck. Image courtesy of UPS. This model UPS truck is used to train employees in how to safely enter and exit the truck. Image courtesy of UPS.

“The UPS Integrad System combines a number of components that comprise a GenXY, peer-assisted, inclusive, interactive learning system,” said Smith-Jackson. “The principles are derived from the most up-to-date research on ergonomics.”

At Diageo, a business with a collection of beverage brands, environmental health and safety manager John Longo also had two slip simulators built to train his employees at the company’s bottling facilities. “What drives us is the safety of our people,” Longo said.

The safety message is making an impact. “Employees strapping themselves into the slip-simulator, or seeing co-workers do likewise, handily beats PowerPoint presentations,” Longo said. “Workers don’t respond as well to lectures or posters hanging on walls informing them of something.”

Word is spreading. Lockhart said a major American missile manufacturer is interested in re-training its workforce on a slip-simulator replica. A major gas retailer may do likewise, Smith-Jackson said.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Steven Mackay at (540) 231-4787.

A quest to prevent falls and save lives

    Testing in the Locomotion Resarch Laboratory

College of Engineering's Thurmon Lockhart is solving the mysteries of mobility and stability in his Locomotion Research Lab.

By the numbers

  • $40.1 billion: Total cost of U.S. workers’ compensation cost*
  • $8.3 billion: Total cost of workers’ compensation related to falls*
  • 435,000: Number of UPS employees

*Source: From Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, 2003

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