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Beyond ‘The Matrix’: High-Tech Imaging at NIOSH Advances Job Injury Prevention Studies

NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 401-3749
May 28, 2003

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 the spectacular special effects in the hit movie The Matrix Reloaded.

In the movie, 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 1) help equip today’s diverse work force with effective life-saving personal protective devices, 2) help ensure a good fit between an employee and his work area in activities where physical incompatibility can be dangerous, and 3) provide better ways to predict and prevent job-related musculoskeletal hazards. The applications include these:

  • 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 workforce, 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 data base 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 workforce, which also is increasingly diverse. In a moving tractor, a cab with awkwardly placed controls can pose safety concerns. Better fit means better safety.
  • NIOSH designed and is evaluating a sensor-loaded body suit 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 toll-free NIOSH information number, 1-800-35-NIOSH (1-800-356-4674) or visit NIOSH on the Web .