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October 14, 2021
Safety, Virtual construction & technology

The training is virtual, but the hazards are real.

Jobsite safety is always a top priority for Pepper, as it should be for any construction company. But let's be honest – safety training can be boring! Team members receive job-specific training each time they start on a new jobsite, which means that they are often subject to hearing the same generic lectures over and over again. Naturally, people start to tune out – and that can be very dangerous with the high potential for injuries in the construction industry.

That's why we asked ourselves, "How can we turn our general safety training monologue into a dialogue and create an experience that people will remember?

A fully immersive training solution

All of the paths we considered kept leading back to virtual reality – a tool that we were already using to help our clients understand how their new spaces would function and flow before they were built. Our Safety and Technical Services departments explored how to leverage tools and resources that we had in-house to create a "real life," immersive safety learning environment that combines virtual reality with gaming software. We didn't need to hire a consultant, which minimized the investment required, and we were able to develop a custom solution using one of our own projects reinforced with industry data. This approach also gives us the flexibility to make changes as the data evolves.

With input from team members who would utilize the training, the program was created to match the most common real-life hazards on jobsites.

3 Areas of Focus

We also knew from experience that our concrete jobs had the highest safety incident rates, so we started with an actual vertical concrete new construction project.

Point Cloud Scan

 The first step was to select an existing laser scan of the job sight taken before the concrete was poured. We then chose where to place uninstalled materials on the site that could be potential hazards, such as buckets and dumpsters.

3DS Max Modeling Tool

We then imported the scan into the 3ds Max modeling tool and modeled on top of the image. We selected 3ds Max because it works well with other tools and can create photo-realistic renderings. However, 3ds Max alone does not create a virtual reality experience.

Unreal Engine

To make the experience "virtually real," we turned to Unreal Engine, a creation engine used to build video games that works well with 3ds Max. Rather than using traditional coding, Unreal Engine uses virtual coding, which makes it easier for non-experts and allowed us to create our own "game" for training.

While the training itself is actually fun, the fact that it takes place on a replicated jobsite with real hazards makes it memorable for tradespeople in a completely authentic yet safe way. In fact, studies show that virtual reality training significantly improves retention, test scores and empathy, which implies that tradespeople are more likely to consider their own safety as well as the safety of their coworkers after completing a virtual reality training session. 

Pepper's own initial results reflect these statistics. The top line in the graphic below shows our reported safety incident rates, which increased significantly when we expanded our vertical concrete work. As you can see, the numbers dropped sharply after introducing the virtual reality training program. In the spirit of full disclosure, other elements such as increased attention and awareness may also have influenced this dramatic change, but based on qualitative feedback from participants there is an undeniable connection to the VR safety-training program.

Yearly Safety Statistics

We have had opportunities to share this training program with industry peers through conference presentations and trade publications. Based on the positive reviews from both internal and external audiences, we are already preparing a drywall safety session using the same approach. We anticipate that our own efforts, as well as those of our peers, will continue to expand and lead to further innovation in safety, task and project-specific training in the years ahead.

Our efforts have recently been recognized by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), which named Pepper Construction as the most innovative company in the construction industry and the recipient of the 2021 Innovation Award for our virtual reality safety training program. 

AGC Innovation Logo

To learn more about the program and the Pepper people behind it, please watch the video below:

Knowing that this award-winning virtual training will make tradespeople safer on Pepper projects is exciting. Having confidence that they will carry it with them as they move on to other jobsites – which means it could impact safety across the construction industry – is extraordinary!

About the Authors

Daniel Ruane

Daniel Ruane, CSP, CHSTVice President of Safety, Illinois and Wisconsin

Dan has 19 years of experience as a safety professional in the construction industry. In his role as vice president of safety, Dan is responsible for planning, implementation and maintenance of Pepper's safety training programs. He is involved in pre-planning of projects to ensure all safety and health concerns are addressed and conducts regular project safety audits.

Dan is actively involved in promoting safety in the industry. He serves as chairman of the Builders Association (AGC Chicago Branch) Safety and Health Committee and is a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). He speaks at several events throughout the year including quarterly forums and the spring summit/safety awards ceremony. Dan holds a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety and Health from Illinois State University, and he is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and Construction Health and Safety Technician (CHST).


Jennifer Suerth, LEED® APSenior Vice President of Virtual Construction, MEP and Operations Technology

As senior vice president of virtual construction, Jen provides strategic direction for the company with regard to BIM, laser scanning, augmented reality, MEP and other technical services specialties. She serves as a key advisor to project teams on constructability and implementation strategies throughout the early stages of project design and development, as well as providing leadership on construction, fabrication and facility management and operations technology.

Jen has more than 12 years of experience in architecture, engineering and construction. She is a leader in the Chicago virtual construction community, speaking frequently and running workshops educating others on BIM. She has been recognized among 2016 Women in Construction by Constructech Magazine, Chicago Building Congress Future Leaders and ENR Midwest’s Top 20 Under 40. Jen holds a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies and a Master of Architecture, Structures, both from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Read more about Jen.