Advances in Workplace Safety Technology: All Aboard!

Since the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) was promulgated, workplaces, industries, and the roles and responsibilities of workers have changed dramatically. While technological advancements and knowledge in the safety professional does not double as fast as that of the field of medicine (every 73 days!), innovations, changes in safety practice applications, and theories have been changing at a faster pace than ever before. More advanced construction practices and industrial techniques have come with evolving harmful exposures for workers and new injury and illness risks.

Although the application of complex technology for safety purposes is not novel by any means, as evident in the use of telematics and automation in transportation-related industries, the use of technological advances has yet to take hold in more traditional workplaces. Serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) are still common in high-risk industries hazards controls are lacking or ineffective. Where safety professionals might be able to make a dent in SIFs is by expanding the technological knowledge base and tracking the efficacy of these technologies as they are put into practice in their own workplaces.

GPS Tracking

Keeping track of remote workers in high-hazard jobs is essential for ensuring their safety and well-being. Monitoring remote worker locations and work activities allows for quick responses to emergencies and/or ability to provide support when needed. Some devices and technologies that are being used to track remote workers in high-hazard jobs include GPS trackers in the form of wristbands, badges, or safety vests that provide real-time location data to supervisors and safety teams.

Smartphone Apps

As a 2009 iPhone commercial proclaimed – “There’s an App for that!” A quick search for smartphone applications yielded resources for safety regulations, sound and noise monitoring, biometrics, chemical data, emergency response, fall protection measurements, ladder safety, toolbox talks/safety meetings, lone worker tracking, two-way communication, ergonomics formulas, site inspections, accident investigation, and so much more. 

RFID Tags, Bluetooth Beacons, and Geofencing

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags can be attached to worker badges or equipment. RFID readers placed at specific locations can track when workers enter or exit designated areas. Bluetooth beacons can track the movement of workers within predefined zones. These beacons communicate with smartphones or wearable devices, providing location information. The addition of geofencing creates virtual boundaries or zones on a map and when a worker enters or exits a predefined area, supervisors are alerted.

Biometric, Exposure and Location Wearables

High-visibility safety vests with built-in GPS and communication features allow for tracking and communication in hazardous environments. Helmets equipped with GPS, sensors, and communication capabilities provide real-time location data and safety alerts for workers in construction and mining industries. Individual badges, watches, and standalone air monitors can track worker exposures and vital signs, such as heart rate and body temperature, in real time. 

Fatigue and Cannabis Detection

Fatigue monitoring solutions are being designed and piloted to help mitigate the potential for injuries and fatalities in industries that have worker populations that work long hours or night shifts. Technologies that predict fatigue are generally based on the users’ recent sleep, work hours, etc. are designed to detect potential current fatigue using biological measures such as eyelid movement and blink rate, reaction times to tests, or other work performance measures (e.g., errors or task accomplishment departures.

Impairment detection technologies and algorithms are on the rise to detect substances that are hard to detect impairment factors in real time, such as cannabis. Cannabis impairment detection technologies for cannabis largely rely on relative reaction times on simple dexterity and cognitive tests and/or eye-tracking sensors that capture data and video and then analyze the data using machine learning.

Drones and UAVs

Drones equipped with cameras and GPS can be used for aerial surveillance of remote work sites. They can capture images, video footage, and location data for safety monitoring. In addition, drones and UAVs can be deployed in high-risk areas to perform tasks and monitor conditions in locations, thus removing workers from harm’s way. Drones are increasingly used for safety inspections of hard-to-reach or dangerous areas in workplaces. 

Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR)

VR and AR technologies are currently being used for training and simulations in hazardous environments. These technologies are expected to expand their practical use into safety inspections, remote assistance, and hazard visualization based upon how they were used during the COVID epidemic and to assist experts to aid in identifying, documenting, and suggesting solutions to risks that previously have gone undetected and/or unmitigated.

Advanced Robotics

Over the last several decades, robots have taken over the accomplishment of variety of processes historically performed with human labor at great risk. Robots are used for lifting, material handling, autonomous cars and heavy equipment, packaging, product assembly/disassembly, inspection of hazardous locations, and much more.  Robots and collaborative robots are constantly evolving and being improved for more specific uses and tasks.

Digital Safety Management

Integrated digital platforms and software for safety management are becoming more prevalent within large corporations. These systems are evolving quickly by offering predictive analytics, AI-driven safety recommendations, and improved incident reporting and tracking capabilities. Algorithms incorporated into digital platforms are rapidly advancing in such a way that predicting the potential for accidents or near misses using AI through automated decision-making.

Without a doubt, the use of technology can help reduce human error and make workplaces safer. However, even the most clever or useful technological advances eliminate all hazards and risks. For safety professionals, these useful tools can save time, reduce costs, and keep workers that used to be exposed to high-hazard tasks out of harm’s way. The most effective way to use any new technology is ensure that safety is integrated into management and work practices at all levels, addressing all types of work and all types of hazards that affect workers, the public, and the environment from an organization’s operations.

Ultimately, the design and use of new technologies to reduce accidents, injuries and illnesses will depend on the evolution risks in the industries in which we work, and the needs driven by society’s advancements. To keep up with what’s new – read, research, attend professional conferences, and connect with professional colleagues to ensure you know what is out there to address your safety and risk issues. It is certain that next year at this time, we will have come a long way in risk reduction techniques and advancements than where we are now.

James A. Junkin, MS, CSP, SMS, ASP, CSHO is the chief executive officer of Mariner-Gulf Consulting & Services, LLC and the chair of the Veriforce Strategic Advisory Board. He is Columbia Southern University’s 2022 Safety Professional of the Year (Runner Up) and a much sought after master trainer, keynote speaker, podcaster, and author of numerous articles concerning occupational safety and health.