Unique hi-tech lab creates innovative solutions to improve workplace health and safety issues
Laurentian University in Sudbury is home to an innovative workplace simulator that is helping address key on-the-job health and safety issues. A FedNor investment of more than $286,000 was instrumental in establishing the state-of-the-art research lab operated by the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH).
What makes the facility unique is that it combines three key pieces of research and testing equipment under one roof. The first component is an environmental chamber that resembles a stainless steel walk-in freezer – a room within a room – in which the temperature and humidity levels can be set to simulate actual working conditions in the field. The second element is a rotopod that measures and replicates the amount of vibration and motion to which an operator of a jackhammer, for example, would be exposed. The final piece of equipment is an eye tracker that can detect, among other things, visual distractions that could pose a hazard or cause an accident. These three components may be used individually, or in any combination, depending on the need.
The centre has two primary goals. The first is to serve Northern Ontario industries and communities by improving working conditions and reducing workplace injuries. The centre accomplishes this through ‘field to lab to field’ research. CROSH Director Sandra Dorman says the simulator helps minimize industry down time while exploring solutions to improve workplace safety.
“The best way to examine a particular problem is to talk to people in the field, record all the necessary data, bring that back to the lab, replicate the problem, come up with a solution and then test it in the field,” states Dorman. “By developing solutions under the same field conditions, it eliminates equipment down time and some tweaking that otherwise would have to take place, saving companies valuable time.”
Mobile equipment hazards are common to many mining, forestry, public works and construction workplaces. Operating garbage trucks and snowplows are two examples where fatigue may come into play. As Dorman explains, the centre can use the workplace simulator to replicate mobile equipment challenges in the lab, enabling students to try various innovative and practical solutions to help eliminate accidents and injuries.
The eye tracker, originally used in the layout design of grocery stores to determine what attracts the shopper’s eye, is also helping to improve products and equipment. Dorman used the addition of an after-market backup camera screen on a large piece of mining equipment as an example.
“Placing such a device could impair the operator’s line of sight, especially underground,” noted Dorman. “Furthermore, its bright screen could distract the driver. Camera systems can help manage large vehicles, but only if they’re placed properly. That’s where the eye tracker is helpful. The device is also a great way to train new employees by using the system to record what experienced workers look at and out for, and use that video to train novices.”
In the lab’s first year of operation alone, FedNor’s investment has helped to create six jobs and maintain three others at CROSH. Additionally, through its research activities, the workplace simulator has assisted to maintain four businesses and to expand eight others. It has also assisted businesses with the development of three new products.
Graduate student Curtis Hancock is suited-up and ready to be shaken for science. The robotic motion and vibration platform operates in six degrees of freedom to recreate the vibration and motion of equipment in the field. Among other capabilities, the platform can be used to test the effectiveness of materials and clothing in mitigating vibration exposure and risk to people and equipment.
CROSH is helping Northern Ontario workplaces accelerate the commercialization of innovative products designed to mitigate problems in the workplace. Pilots, mechanics, carpenters and construction workers are particularly at risk of developing Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome that can result from prolonged exposure to vibration. Symptoms include numbness, tingling and loss of nerve sensitivity and can lead to loss of function in the hand and arm. Thanks to the CROSH rotopod, entrepreneurs can evaluate if their prototype will be effective in preventing or reducing the transmission of vibration to the worker.
“It can be very expensive and challenging for local businesses to test their products,” says Dorman. “We are helping to bridge the gap between research and commercialization. Entrepreneurs may work with our lab technologist who runs the equipment and involve some of our approximately 40 post-doctoral level students in their cutting-edge research. It’s a win-win for both students and entrepreneurs.”
To spread the word of its new facility and research capacity, as well as the research projects that it was involved with during the first year of operation, CROSH officials organized eight events before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, reaching a total of 240 people.
With its workplace simulator and mobile lab, CROSH is establishing itself as a leader in occupational health and safety across the country and beyond. Though innovative research, technology and testing, CROSH is helping small and medium-sized enterprises improve on-the-job safety, resulting in significant cost savings.
CROSH’s workplace simulator is an example of the types of initiatives funded by FedNor that support of the federal Prosperity and Growth Strategy for Northern Ontario. Learn more about PGSNO.
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