As another challenging year for health & safety professionals draws to a close, it’s time to look ahead to what next year might hold. We predict that 2022 will be framed by innovative technology and a continued focus on workplace wellbeing.
So, what trends are emerging, and what potential do they have to strengthen health & safety?
Hardhats with proximity sensors, location tracking and smart protection; wristwatches designed for the risk management of hand-arm vibrations; chest devices that use bio-sensing technology to measure core body temperature, heart rate and exertion; and real-time tracking devices for lone workers are some of the wearables that are already commercially available.
These devices use highly sophisticated electronic components to collect data, track activities and provide customised experiences. Moreover, they are designed to help workers perform their jobs more safely, thereby reducing work-related accidents.
Wearable devices are deeply entrenched in consumer behaviour, but it’s in infancy in an industrial context. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, cost, and secondly, concerns around the data that can be collected and stored by wearable tech; some workers might consider it an infringement of privacy, and when it comes to using tech to monitor job function, it can create a sense of being ‘micro-managed’.
However, if these obstacles can be overcome, there is huge potential for wearables for occupational safety monitoring. In fact, the global wearables market is projected to exceed US$ 2.78bn by 2024, expanding at a CAGR of 9.2%*, and the HSE is backing wearables through its Shared Research Programme, indicating that this is definitely one to watch.
Apps that allow individuals working on factory floors, construction sites, quarries etc., to report and track accidents or near-misses have been around for a few years. Still, we’re expecting 2022 to be the year when they attain widespread acceptance.
Traditionally, accident reporting is a manual process that involves stacks of paperwork, filing and continued administration management. However, organisations are increasingly waking up to the idea that it doesn’t have to be paper-based to comply. With app-based technology, workers can autonomously and proactively report incidents from a smartphone or tablet. The data is then sent directly to a cloud-based portal, where health & safety personnel can assess and view a real-time incident report. In short, an app-based approach reduces costly administration and can increase employee engagement with incident reporting.
Workplace health & safety is no longer just about physical health. Employee wellbeing has rocketed up the corporate agenda as the pandemic leaves its mark on people’s mental health.
75% of those who participated in the CIPD’s 2021 Health and Wellbeing at Work Survey** said they believe that senior leaders have employee wellbeing on their agenda, up from 61% last year. In addition, the survey found that most organisations are taking additional measures to support employee health and wellbeing in response to Covid-19, most commonly through an increased focus on mental health, tailoring support to individuals’ needs, and providing additional support for people working from home.
However, financial wellbeing remains a neglected area - just 23% of respondents reported that their workplace had increased its focus on financial wellbeing in response to the pandemic, with support mainly limited to signposting people to external sources of advice.
Our prediction is that in 2022, as well as a continued focus on fostering a culture in which employees can openly discuss mental health issues, wellbeing programmes will evolve to focus more heavily on financial wellbeing as the economic impacts of the pandemic bite. Companies will increasingly recognise that a solid financial wellbeing strategy can raise staff morale and boost retention levels.
Along with ‘smart’ PPE that incorporates sensors for safety monitoring, we expect to see more personalised PPE in the future. Companies are moving away from buying a ‘job lot’ of PPE and handing it out in favour of a more customised, performance- and comfort-led approach.
For example, rather than buying large quantities of generic gloves and going through them quickly, employers might buy gloves with special add-ons to address specific wear-points. Although these might initially cost more, in the long run, they will save money.
In addition, multifunctional materials are being developed to provide resistance to multiple hazards. One example of this is the nitrile and Kevlar cut- and chemical-resistant grip gloves that are commonplace on sites today.
There’s also a trend towards focusing on comfort and style to improve compliance. The idea is that if the gear is comfortable enough, a worker won’t think of it as PPE. Going forwards, we are likely to see lighter fabrics and seamless designs that balance comfort and performance, eye protection that looks more like everyday eyewear, respirators that allow workers to wear facial hair and more female-specific PPE.
While many organisations were initially forced down the online training route by Covid-19, virtual training is becoming a choice rather than a compromise. Companies are systemically reviewing and rethinking their approaches to health & safety training and realising that many aspects can be taught more effectively and economically online. At the same time, it is helping that virtual training technology is advancing rapidly. The virtual training and simulation market is projected to reach $628.62m by 2028, growing at a CAGR of over 13%***. Advancements in Virtual Reality (VR) and demand for personalised training solutions are driving this growth.
VR is an immersive, simulated experience delivered by headset systems or multi-projected environments. It generates digital scenarios where the user has a simulated physical presence. Essentially it is not dissimilar to gaming, making it more appealing to many workers than traditional training formats. Indeed, studies have shown that memory retention is much higher when using VR-based training.
As well as exposing workers to hazards without the risk of harm, VR training is also beneficial from an efficiency perspective. For example, to train workers to repair or troubleshoot heavy equipment, employers typically have to take a piece of machinery out of service. VR allows training to be carried out without taking a real bulldozer or truck out of the fleet at the expense of productivity.