Breaking Risk Habituation to Occupational Hazards using Virtual Reality Interventions with Aversive Sensory Feedback Grant uri icon


  • Workers in high-risk industries such as construction encounter numerous safety hazards during their daily tasks, and such repeated exposures to a hazard without an adverse event may desensitize the worker to risks. This behavioral tendency, often called risk habituation, is one of the central causal factors in workplace accidents, and it is widely thought to reflect a consequence of learning on cognitive and perceptual processes. Overcoming risk habituation requires overriding the mental lapses that can occur when workers default to well-learned and automatic behaviors. To this end, this project will construct a virtual reality (VR) training system that detects a trainee's risk habituation and provides direct, negative sensory feedback during simulated accidents. This system will sense the development of risk habituation based on behavioral and physiological responses (e.g., body movement, eye tracking, electrodermal activity) and generate interventions by demonstrating the potential consequences of habituated behaviors via negative sensory feedback (i.e., visual, auditory, and touch). Outcomes resulting from this project are expected to transform safety training practices so that managers can deliver more direct and effective behavioral interventions to habituated workers, rather than rely on conventional training methods (e.g., classroom instruction) for safety-knowledge retention. The project will be organized in two phases. First, the project will create fully adaptive experiential learning environments wherein subjects experience VR-simulated accidents,complete with aversive sensory feedback, in response to the onset of risk habituation. This first phase will include: (1) designing and building an adaptive VR environment that provokes trainees' habituated behaviors; (2) identifying physiological signals that mark the onset/stage of risk habituation; and (3) creating a VR intervention with aversive sensory feedback to effectively reduce habituations. In collaboration with Texas A&M's Engineering Extension Service's Infrastructure Training & Safety Institute, during the second phase, this project will examine the effect of the proposed training on habituated workers in high-risk occupations. This second phase will: (1) examine the impact of the proposed training on risk habituation across road construction workers with varying levels of sensory habituation; and (2) explore the extent to which the impact of the proposed training translates to risk perception and to the safety attitudes of trainees. By pairing rigorous psychophysical assessments of sensory habituation with translational measures acquired in a VR environment, the successful completion of this project will provide a strong empirical basis for addressing sensory habituation to improve worksite safety. More importantly, this project will translate research on aversive conditioning and attention/learning to scientifically-based approaches for shaping the real-world safety behavior of people, thereby providing a foundation for creating VR safety-training modules for stimulating behavior change. Additionally, this study will produce a curriculum on the cognitive and behavioral aspects of safety management, and it will deliver such topical lessons to diverse learners,including undergraduate/graduate students and safety managers, and cultivate broader awareness about risk habituation in the workplace. This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

date/time interval

  • 2020 - 2023