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Construction in America

Harnessing 21st Century Technologies to Make the Workplace Safer

Workplace dynamics are rapidly changing; the world is becoming exponentially more digital and interconnected. Just like our personal lives — with the proliferation of smartphones and the advent of wearable sensor technologies — the workplace has become smart. Everything from the breakroom refrigerator to an entire factory is connected to the internet, providing constant data to users. We are seeing an increase in automation and the use of robots to carry out tasks that may be dangerous for people to do, such as measuring chemical vapors from a tank or spraying pesticides on crops. This evolution in technology may hold great potential to enhance safety and health in the workplace, but it is not without challenges.

Wearable connectivity

In our smart, interconnected world, we are inundated by data, including what we receive from sensor technology. The use of sensors to monitor a person’s environment or health status is increasing at a rapid pace. Individuals are able to cultivate self-knowledge by monitoring aspects of their daily lives, such as tracking steps taken on a daily walk — ushering in the era of the “quantified self.” Sensors are embedded in and around some workplaces, such as factories, and they are now small enough that they are also worn by employees.

In the workplace, sensors can provide a more comprehensive picture of workers’ exposure to harmful substances. For example, sensors embedded in a firefighter’s turnout gear can provide an early warning of dangerous heat levels at the scene of a fire; or an app on a worker’s phone can provide on-the-spot sound measurement in a noisy workplace. These devices provide the safety professional or worker immediate results so exposures can be instantly reduced or eliminated.

Interpreting the data

While sensors can empower workers, improve safety, and reduce preventable injuries, knowledge gaps still exist around the accuracy and validity of the measurements they make. There are also the questions about how to best use the information they provide to inform safety and health decisions in the workplace.

The challenge lies in the ability to analyze and interpret this constant stream of data, which is beyond the traditional role and skill set of today’s safety professional. The occupational safety and health professional of the future will need broader expertise in areas such as decision modeling and data management to be able to turn data into actionable knowledge.

Robotics and the worker 

Automation isn’t a new concept. The replacement of people with machines has its roots in the early industrial revolution; today, industrial robots are already used in automobile manufacturing factories. Drones might allow farmers to apply pesticide without exposure to chemicals. Service robots may help health care workers safely lift patients, eliminating a major cause of debilitating musculoskeletal injuries. Or a fleet of self-driving vehicles could reduce motor vehicle crashes among delivery workers — a significant source of injury, lost time for workers and a liability for employers.

However, there is still much work to be done by the occupational safety and health community before the benefits and potential risks of robots can be fully known. Robots working collaboratively with humans present a new workplace risk profile that is not yet well understood. It’s a new frontier for safety professionals — and little government guidance or policy exists regarding the safe integration of robots into the workplace.

Technological advances are yielding practices and information that promise new ways to identify and reduce hazards in the workplace and enhance worker safety and health. Still, we must capture the potential of these new technologies while ensuring the safety of workers affected by them.

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