Using Technology for Health and Safety
Technology continues to advance, and it offers a great many benefits that can be applied in health and safety management. Technological tools can provide invaluable safety back-up for the lone worker, for example, and smart PPE provides protection and monitoring for employees engaged in all sorts of tasks. Other aspects of a wider safety net include the extended use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones), and training programmes that take advantage of advances in virtual reality (VR) simulations.
Most common use cases
Using technology for health and safety currently breaks down into three general areas:
- Hazardous environments
- Training and awareness
One of the best ways to protect people engaged in dangerous or difficult activities is to physically remove them from the scene. Technological developments in the size and manoeuvrability of drones mean they can be deployed in situations which were previously very hazardous to human employees. These include working underwater and especially working at height, where smaller and less expensive high-definition cameras can be deployed on a UAV.
Rather than setting up a mobile platform or ladder for a worker to check out a situation, operators on the ground - or even in a remote location - can send up a drone to observe it. A live video feed goes to a tablet or other connected device, so that all kinds of equipment can be monitored. This might include items such as cranes and storage tanks, communications equipment, electricity pylons or even drainage gutters. Using drones can reduce a company's H&S risk, by preventing physical injury to its employees and thereby saving money on remedial treatment and compensation.
In a more general sense, drones can be used to monitor leakages of, for example, hazardous gases. Underwater versions can be used for marine applications. In some instances, their observational capacities are boosted by a miniature robot which can carry out basic repairs, such as small welds.
Training and awareness
Of course, there are many jobs that still require human hands. In this capacity, new technologies can provide ways of training employees in how to monitor and respond to hazards. With an initially unwelcome boost delivered by COVID-19, many organisations have already begun the transition to online training. Virtual training is not only adaptable to the employee's circumstances, but can be more efficient and cost-effective. This technology is developing rapidly, so that many H&S situations can be taught using VR, including personalised training solutions.
Kick-started by the gaming industry, VR is an immersive experience that allows the user's simulated physical presence to enter digital scenarios via a headset or other interface. Workers can learn in complete safety how to identify and dispose of H&S hazards. An employee working on potentially hazardous equipment or entering a simulated confined space is empowered to learn by repeated failure, without fear of injury or embarrassment. Plus, they'll have a greater likelihood of remembering how they did it, as immersive training imprints better on the memory. VR training also benefits employers, who don't need to take complex equipment off line or machinery out of service in order to train workers in troubleshooting or repairs.
The third major aspect of H&S technologies is in providing electronic and mechanical assistance to workers, for better protection on the job. Wearables are capable of contributing a lot of information by means of electronic monitors and trackers. For example, you can help manage the risks of vibration injury at work by means of wearable equipment, such as wristwatches that are specially designed to monitor hand-arm vibrations.
Bio-sensing technology attached to a worker's chest can measure key indicators such as heart rate, exertion and core body temperature, and can be coupled with tracking monitors to help keep lone workers safe. Hard hats and safety goggles can also be fitted with sensory equipment that will provide H&S monitoring protection. Examples include proximity sensors, and sensors that measure the breathability of the air.
Even ergonomic safety has been improved with technology. Electric sit-to-stand desks have built-in sensors and a motor-powered mechanism that offers diverse seating options. Workers can adjust the desk to provide the best support, or to change position throughout a working day, thus preventing repetitive strain or back injuries. Going one step further, ergonomics technology can assist in your H&S management. Cloud-based apps offer instant visibility of risk assessments across all of your sites and facilities. You can use these remotely to locate problems, initiate and monitor improvements and conduct follow-up assessments.
Improved communications are a major factor in H&S technology. You can now carry out many supervisory tasks from your home or office, such as face-to-face video calling and conferencing, tracking employee biometrics, detecting exposure to harmful elements or scanning barcodes and RFID tags. Close communication is vital for ensuring the safety of lone or remote workers, providing them with a direct connection to a supervisor or emergency assistance. Remote monitoring can also be extended to cover accident and near-miss reporting, with real-time apps that allow workers to file immediate incident reports.
A sub-category of wearable technology is of the assistive type, which physically helps to minimise risks by extending human capabilities. This category comprises mechanical frames and exoskeletons that can be strapped onto a person's back or arms. These give workers additional power to lift heavy loads, or to carry out lifting actions in situations not easily or comfortably accessible. These assistive technologies help people to avoid musculoskeletal disorders arising from repetitive or awkward movements.
Technology, safety and labour
There still exists a common fear, dating back to the first Industrial Revolution, that machines will replace human labour. In some ways this fear is quite justified: most independent craft workers in the 18th century became redundant or were forced into low-paid factory work. Today's assembly lines also rely more on complex machinery than human labour, but in the long view, this makes it much safer and allows human beings to focus on more demanding tasks.
If you'd like advice on incorporating technology into your health and safety management programme, we're always happy to help.