Health & Safety Gets Smart

From apps to Industry 4.0 and Augmented Reality, how is digital technology transforming health & safety?

For many years, the practice of health & safety has involved heavily manual processes with a focus on paper-driven methods and compliance at the expense of innovation. 

However, that appears to be slowly changing as businesses recognise the benefits that digital technology can bring to a range of health & safety-related activities, from increasing engagement with training to automating repetitive tasks.

While some technologies, such as mobile apps, are easy to understand and implement, others are more daunting. This article looks at the full spectrum of technologies that have the potential to transform the way businesses approach health & safety.

Industry 4.0: a new paradigm

Undoubtedly at the more complex end of the spectrum, Industry 4.0 is the name of a suite of technologies that introduce the concept of cyber-physical systems - essentially networked integration of physical plant and machinery, sensors and computer software. 

The technologies in question include smart sensors, wearable devices, mobile devices, advanced algorithms, data analytics, the industrial Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cloud computing.

Currently, Industry 4.0 technologies are most commonly used for optimising operations and improving production efficiency. However, as the following examples illustrate, there are significant opportunities for exploiting these technologies to support health & safety efforts:

  • Robots embedded with AI are becoming intelligent, mobile, collaborative and autonomous. At a time when worker shortages have hit a crisis point, they can replace humans in repetitive or hazardous tasks.

  • AI-optimised remote-monitoring solutions using a variety of IoT-enabled devices can be used to detect anomalies that could indicate a health & safety issue. For example, applying AI to factory floor footage from wireless cameras can detect potential hazards or spillages. Similarly, the system can be taught to recognise if workers are carrying out certain tasks unsafely or non-ergonomically, allowing management to proactively intervene before repetitive use injuries become a problem.

  • AI can also be used with sensors to detect health & safety issues. For example, an ambient noise sensor could alert staff to clear an area with higher-than-average noise until the issue has been addressed.

Augmented and Virtual Reality: not just for gamers

Overall, global spending on Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, software and services rose in 2020 to $12 billion, up 50% from 2019*. AR and VR have come a long way in recent years, evolving from a niche technology to a growing trend across multiple industries. 

Before discussing how these closely related technologies can be used in health & safety applications, it is worth explaining the difference between them, as they are often confused. VR uses an entirely computer-simulated 360-degree view that allows users to manipulate the environment around them. In contrast, in AR, computer-generated content is overlaid on a real view of the environment. VR can take the user anywhere, whereas AR can bring anything to them. 

VR is more established than AR, and forward-looking organisations are using it in a training context to bridge the gap between classroom learning and real-world application, improving training effectiveness and reducing the risk associated with dangerous activities. For example, learners can drive a forklift with a physical steering wheel or master the use of a soldering iron without risking an accident.

Although AR is not currently as popular as VR, it is anticipated that learning and training is one of the critical areas for using AR in the near future as more smartphones become ‘AR-ready’. 

Here are some examples of how AR could be used in a health & safety context: 

  • Equipment/machinery training: employees can acquire technical skills or learn how to use a piece of equipment in the physical space by overlaying digital information about how to use it. Similarly, AR could guide employees through a complex procedure, for example, by overlaying instructions or a checklist to assist with carrying out a machinery safety inspection. 

  • Mapping and tracking: when coupled with data collected from computer vision-based surveying tools and rendered onto a floor map, AR can digitise a physical space and its infrastructure. This makes it possible to map and track equipment, from fire extinguishers to machinery. Health & safety inspectors can then use a smartphone or headgear to navigate the facility, making it easier to find and check all the various elements. This functionality could also be used to conduct virtual health & safety tours.

  • Reporting and tracking issues: when combined with building management systems and ticketing software applications, AR can be used to help engineers check any equipment issues that have been identified during an inspection. An issue can be reported along with an image/video and the location coordinates, giving the engineer the required information to find and address the issue efficiently.

App technology: an app for everything

Various health & safety apps have sprung up in recent years, from all-encompassing apps that promise to integrate compliance and HSE management systems in one solution to apps specifically designed to support the safety of remote workers.

Here are some of the functions that can be carried out using an app-based approach:

  • Monitoring remote workers: geo-tagging, man-down functionality, and SOS buttons enable organisations to support lone and field workers more effectively and respond immediately to safety incidents. 

  • Recording incidents and near misses: workers can use apps to capture health & safety issues or incidents in real-time and provide photos and video as evidence. 

  • Creating and using smart checklists, forms, templates, and reports makes regulatory compliance less cumbersome.

  • Vehicle, plant, and machinery inspection recording.

  • Preventative and annual maintenance recording.

  • Online and app-based awareness training.

  • Issuing of important documents such as employee handbooks, Health & Safety policies, risk assessments, and method statements.

Conclusion: digital transformation is inevitable

Next-generation digital technologies aren’t yet the norm in health & safety, but it is only a matter of time before they are. Digitalisation has the power to revolutionise the way health & safety functions and to make workplaces safer and more efficient in the process. 

Don't miss our next Health & Safety blogs, subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on LinkedIn