Candy Salyers, who works next door to Industrial Biodynamics in Salem, navigates the company's slip simulator. Trainers would later tell her that she shouldn't have taken the step without a stair rail to hold. She slipped. Photo by Tad Dickens.

A Salem company has something like a thrill ride in its back lot, but the focus is more about safety than fun.

It’s called a slip simulator, and good luck staying upright while walking on its low-friction surface. You won’t fall, though — trainers strap you into a harness before you begin your short, eventful walk, and they give you tips on how to navigate something that’s even more intense than walking on ice. 

That said, they’ll also hand you a bulky box with a heavy and unstable ball rolling around inside. They’ll put obstacles in front of you. They might even throw stuff at you.

The company, Industrial Biodynamics, has sold its trailer-bound devices to tech behemoths Amazon and Google, delivery giant FedEx, energy providers including Appalachian Power, and about 100 other businesses interested in keeping employees upright in slippery conditions.

For example, winter is coming to North Dakota, where snow and ice are the norm. So are related falls that often end with painful and costly injuries. Truckers, delivery drivers and law enforcement officers are among occupations that can’t stay indoors on lousy days. The North Dakota Safety Council relies on an Industrial Biodynamics slip simulator to help folks stay upright.

Industrial Biodynamics, INBIODYN for short, installed the simulator at the safety council’s Bismarck headquarters a couple of years ago. Since then, about 400 people have trained on it,  said John Woutat, a senior consultant at the safety council. 

Bill Thorne of Salem-based Industrial Biodynamics holds up the sole of a shoe the company uses to train people on its slip simulator. Photo by Tad Dickens.

“I think most people come in, and they don’t understand how slippery it is,” Woutat said. “I mean, it’s got to be fairly close to, you know, zero friction. It’s super slippery.”

How? The surface is tempered glass, sprayed with a water/soap solution. Trainers put trainees in shoes that have nonstick foot pads attached to the soles, then send them down the 21-foot track, the harness attached to a gantry above to keep a slip from becoming a tumble.

“If you can make it extra slippery and you can learn in that environment, then anything less than that is that much easier,” INBIODYN co-founder Jon Hager said. “Push it to the extreme, safely, and that’s a great way to learn.”

Before and after that first walk, folks will hear from the trainers, either INBIODYN employees who have brought a mobile unit on site, or in-house trainers in units established permanently at the companies who bought them. They’ll get advice on how to walk, where to look and what else to do to prevent a fall. Subsequent walks follow, and trainees will typically have it down by then.

INBIODYN literature says its technique and awareness methods can reduce workplace accidents “by up to 70%,” based on a study at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Woutat, the North Dakota Safety Council trainer, came to the job after 25 years as a paramedic and a flight paramedic. In those jobs, he had seen traumatic brain injuries and broken bones among the results of simple falls. He said he appreciates what he can do with the slip simulator installed in the council’s building. 

“You know, minimum cost to repair a wrist or ankle, you’re in the $55,000 to $60,000 range,” he said. “The human body never heals back 100%. So those are disabilities that those employees are going to carry with them for the rest of their life, you know, beyond retirement.

“Then you look at head injuries and bleeds related to hitting your head. God forbid you have somebody that’s on blood thinners, that really leads to a much greater level of disability. And, you know, we’ve seen patients die from simply falling and hitting their head on the ice. That can be a fatal injury. So that’s a big piece of it for me, trying to minimize injuries.”

The training also applies to other hazardous surfaces including wet floors and fluid spills, says INBIODYN, which also has a platform to teach how to safely get out of a vehicle in harsh conditions.

It began, like so many ideas born in Southwest Virginia, at Virginia Tech. Company cofounder Christian James said that UPS was updating its training regimen about 15 years ago and came to Thurmon Lockhart — who was a VT industrial and systems engineering professor at the time — looking to develop hands-on training to prevent slips, trips and falls.

Lockhart, who had been studying why elderly people fall more than others and developed a slip simulator that UPS would use, then consulted for the parcel delivery powerhouse for about five years. 

James and Hager, who were engineers at an acoustic research company in Blacksburg, met Lockhart at his lab in 2018, to work on a separate project. 

“We’re like, what is that big thing in the corner?” James recalled. Lockhart told them about the slip simulator. People had been calling, wanting to buy it, but Lockhart was too busy to fool with it further. “So we’re like, ‘OK, well, let’s work with you on that.

“So we kind of redesigned it and made it better for commercialization. … And since then, we’ve sold … over 100 slip simulator units to 70-plus companies, at least at this point. Those are installed in those facilities. … And since then, with a lot of our customers that have rolled it out company-wide, a lot of them that are able to give us the data have been sharing between 50% and 80% reduction in slips, trips and falls for their organization.”

Lockhart has since moved on to Arizona State University where, according to that university’s website, he continues to study falls among the elderly and those with neurological disorders. He is a partner in INBIODYN, which has five full-time employees.

James, Hager and their partners build out the trailers — 35-foot ones for companies to use at multiple sites and 30-foot ones for permanent locations — and the slip simulator gear inside them. Prices run between $198,000 and $280,000 and include trainer certification, according to company literature. The partners still travel from their shop off West Main Street for in-person training, slip simulator trailers in tow.

They learned how to build them and about safety instruction along the way, they said.

“We’re all engineers and did a lot of design, product development research and stuff like that,” James said. “But getting into the safety space, slip-and-fall, was kind of unique to this company. And so a lot of our learning has been obviously through research and through working with [Lockhart], who is and was an expert on slips, trips and falls.

“And also really, you know, a lot of it is showing up to sites, talking with the people at the sites, learning what their issues are, walking the sites with them looking for hazards, talking to the people about what their jobs are, what they do. We’ve heard so many horror stories of people being injured. I mean, every class you go to … there’s always one person in the class that had some horrible slip, trip and fall accident … and then incorporating a lot of that information into our training.”

Some have been reluctant to get on the glass and take the walk but have typically come away impressed with having learned something. The slip simulator’s experiential quality is key, James said.

“It’s all about doing it,” he said. “I can tell you all day not to slip and fall. I can tell you all day, here’s how you should walk if you’re on ice. But until you actually do it, you don’t actually learn anything.”

Tad Dickens is technology reporter for Cardinal News. He previously worked for the Bristol Herald Courier...