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Agency enters the Matrix
The technological magic that has become so popular in movies such as The Matrix Reloaded has found a home in occupational health, paving the way for vastly improved equipment for protecting workers. For example, at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) scientists are helping to prevent deaths and injuries on the job by applying some of the same high-tech innovations that Hollywood used to create those aforementioned spectacular special effects.
In The Matrix Reloaded, through advanced computer imaging, a hundred versions of the sinister Agent Smith gang up against Keanu Reeves’ character Neo in a widely publicized action scene. Technicians created the lifelike multiple images by making three-dimensional laser scans of actor Hugo Weaving’s (Agent Smith) face, digitally capturing the body movements of stunt men performing a furious martial arts fight, and then merging the facial and body images in a computer program.
NIOSH is tapping similar know-how in research that will help equip today’s diverse work force with effective lifesaving personal protective devices; help ensure a good fit between an employee and his or her work area in activities where physical incompatibility can be dangerous; and provide better ways to predict and prevent job-related musculoskeletal hazards.
Here are just a few examples:
• To help the safety industry develop and evaluate new designs for life-saving body harnesses, NIOSH is using 3-D scanning technology that captures the actual body shapes and body postures of volunteer participants, when standing and suspended. Attached to safety lines, harnesses are part of an overall system that catches a person working far above the ground if he or she begins to fall. In addition, harnesses distribute the force of the wrenching or jerking reaction when the fall is arrested, so that no one part of the body absorbs the full force and risk of injury is minimized. (Current harness sizes and designs largely are based on measurements of soldiers in the 1950s, ’70s, and ’80s. Because those military populations were less diverse than today’s work force, new data from body measurements are essential for designing harnesses that will fit people of different sizes and shapes in real conditions of occupational use. Where it would take 20 minutes to measure a person’s size and shape with old-fashioned methods, a 3-D scan takes less than a minute.)
• Similarly, NIOSH is compiling a database of more than 1,000 3-D scans of faces representing the diverse U.S. population of 2003. These scans will help NIOSH and others in developing and testing respirator face masks that will tightly and comfortably fit the widening range of facial configurations among older, younger, male, female, and racially and ethnically representative people in the workplace.
• 3-D scans also provide NIOSH with unique data on the body sizes and shapes of more than 100 farm workers. NIOSH will use these data to develop criteria that will help manufacturers design tractor cabs to accommodate the modern farming work force, which also is increasingly diverse. In a moving tractor, a cab with awkwardly placed controls can pose safety concerns. Better fit means better safety.
Less than a decade old
In terms of NIOSH’s efforts, this new technology is less than a decade old. "The first generation [conceptual model] of the system was developed in 1996 and completed in 1998," says Hongwei Hsiao, PhD, chief of NIOSH’s protective technology branch, based in Morgantown, WV. "We contracted out to a company called Cyberware in California, who developed the final scanner for us. There are three units in the United States right now, and other countries have started to develop similar technology."
Hsiao supervises virtual reality and 3D scanning for NIOSH. "Our human participants actually put on the harness or other equipment, then the 3D scanners generate a low-energy laser beam so we can create 3D images in a short period of time. We did the same thing for the face," he explains.
The other potential applications are virtually limitless, says Hsiao. "The technology can be used in glove design, for eyewear, helmets, and any construction vehicle cab design — actually anywhere machinery interfaces with human beings," he explains. "As a matter of fact, this type of technology can be used in an area of product design called inverse engineering. If you have an existing product you want to modify, you just scan the model in and make modifications on the computer."
Becoming a reality
It won’t be long before this futuristic technology is actually impacting safety in the workplace, says Hsiao. "For the harness, you’re probably within less than eight months for manufacturers [to produce]," he explains. "One of the manufacturers is working with us as a partner, and is actively working on the final design. The mask is still in the data collecting stage, so it may be another year or so [until production]." As for the vehicle cabs, he says all the data are ready, "And we may be able to communicate with tractor manufacturers within a few months. How long it will take to convert that data into a final product depends on their designers."
For those occupational health professionals who avidly follow technological breakthroughs, the future promises to be even more exciting. NIOSH has designed and is evaluating a sensor-loaded bodysuit connected to a computer. A study participant wears the suit and turns on the sensors, which feed data into the computer, which in turn transforms the readings into real-time images of movement on a monitor display. If the suit performs reliably in tests, it may offer a prototype for an ensemble that would help scientists track individuals’ movements in physically demanding work activities. Matching those results with reported cases of work-related musculoskeletal disorders could help scientists better predict movements, postures, or activities that put individuals at occupational risk of MSDs.
[For further information on studies using advanced imaging technologies and other NIOSH research, call the NIOSH information number, (800) 35-NIOSH, or (800) 356-4674) or visit NIOSH on the web at www.cdc.gov/niosh/. You can contact Hongwei Hsiao at (304) 285-5981.]