The health and safety sector has come a long way since mine operators used canaries to detect dangerous toxic gas levels. Today, evaluation and control systems are more advanced than ever before, technology has helped standardize — and improve — safety across a swath of industries, and now data analysis helps health and safety experts get ahead of issues well before they become imminent risks.
At the same time, it seems technology’s evolution has introduced new challenges for the industry to tackle.
Dan Curts, senior technical specialist with 3M Canada, says gas protection equipment exemplifies how much has changed. Over 20 years ago, health and safety professionals used mechanical instruments that took plenty of work to calibrate and analyze. Now, digital gas detectors are the norm, and the devices are used to relay information that would have been difficult to convey in the past.
“In some cases we can be in direct communication with the worker, and we can say, ‘We know you’re in Plant 25. Right now, according to what we can see on the screen, your concentrations of chemical X are elevated. What are you doing right now?’” Curts says, explaining that organizations can react to situations more quickly.
Better batteries ensure that instruments will be powered up and ready to go when needed, he says. And personal protective equipment (PPE) makers are operating with a more sophisticated understanding of what’s needed.
“Most of the larger PPE manufacturers are looking at fully-integrated PPE,” Curts says. “Rather than building equipment in isolation, they’re looking at how this piece works with this other piece.” A hard hat manufacturer may pay more attention to how the hat fits with respirators and eye protection, for instance, so each item no longer competes for space on the wearer’s face and head.
The introduction of computers made a significant difference in terms of health and safety technology, notes Peter Sturm, president of the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering (CSSE). Before the PC era, health and safety information would be shoved away in binders in an office. With computers, that information is readily accessible.
Over the years, computer-based technology prices have come down as well. Whereas early websites would cost tens of thousands of dollars, now it costs less than $1,000 to develop a website, Sturm says. And the web certainly has made it easier for people to share health and safety information.
“If I’m operating a mine in Zambia and I want the best practices for operating a scooptram underground, I can get it,” Sturm says. “I can connect with someone in Sudbury and say, ‘I need the procedures for operating a scooptram.’”
That paves the way for improved standards around the world, with everyone accessing best practices.
“You’re starting to see a harmonization,” Sturm says. “With technology, the best standard becomes the norm for everyone.”
Evolution of standards
Technology has also changed the face of safety standards, says Dave Shanahan, project manager, Canadian Standards Association (CSA). Last January, the organization launched the new edition of the Z462 Workplace Electrical Safety standard.
“We have a much improved section on hazard identification and risk assessment,” Shanahan says. “It corresponds with a new standard coming out on the same subject, 1002, which reflects the availability of software programs that are based on the theory and go through a lot of the complicated calculations required in some of the assessments.”
Equipment tracking isn’t what it used to be. As 3M Canada’s Curts notes, scanning technology such as RFID paired with smart software gives supervisors the ability to see when equipment was last inspected, when it should be inspected again, and when it should be replaced.
But for all of the gains, the health and safety industry still has a long way to go. Griffin Schultz, general manager of data-analysis software company Predictive Solutions, points out that organizations involved in accounting and customer service use data analysis heavily, while many in health and safety are just starting to do so.
Predictive Solutions is bringing analysis to the health and safety realm, working with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University on technology similar to that used by IBM’s famous trivia-finding computer.
“They use the same methodologies applied to Watson to collect data across the Internet, and use it to diagnose medical issues in patients. We’re using related methodologies to help companies predict when they’re going to have safety incidents and fatalities,” Schultz says.
It’s important for the industry to keep moving ahead with technology, says Justin McElhattan, president and CEO, Industrial Scientific Corp. (parent company of Predictive Solutions).
“I have a picture of a chicken in a cage that’s still being used today as a gas detector,” McElhattan says. “I always challenge our engineers and our employees: If we’re just giving our customers a gas detector, it’s nothing more than a more expensive, smaller electronic chicken. That is not enough. Customers need to understand more about their gas detection programs — for instance, how many alarms they’ve had, where they’re having alarms, and if people are exiting when they have alarms.”
The advent of enterprise-wide software systems that share information across the entire company have paved the way for predictive safety solutions, Schultz says. In the past, information about safety incidents in one part of the organization — say the construction arm in Vancouver, for instance — wouldn’t be shared all that easily with other parts, such as the construction team in Winnipeg. Now, software corrals all of those details in one place, simplifying data analysis. Cloud computing will likely take that further.
“You can now analyze much more data on an even deeper level,” Schultz says.
Technology has made it more difficult for people to pass the buck, notes Somen Mondal, CEO of software company Field ID. He points to the fallout from an investigation into crane accidents in New York a few years ago. After nine people were killed in two crane collapses, New York found that an inspector had falsified certifications for equipment and the operators.
With technology that tracks sign-offs and equipment inspections, it’s much harder to get away with things like that, Mondal says.
“Now there’s a lot of accountability. You know someone conducted the inspection. You know there’s an audit trail, and someone’s responsible. You can’t really cheat software like you can with paper.”
In as much as health and safety technology affects the general public as well as employees, Schultz says it might not be long before technology companies bring their software to the masses.
“The theory is you have to change people’s thinking and behaviour with safety, and you can’t just change it within the four walls of the workplace. You have to change it in the home as well... We see over time there will, no doubt, be applications similar to those used to collect job site information from the home as well. We’re not focused on that now, but I see that as a natural evolution.”
There may be certain downsides to the technology evolution, however. Sturm, for one, notes that for some reason health and safety professionals don’t seem to be as creative as they used to be when it comes to solving new problems. Rather than develop new systems based on best practices from other areas — which information-sharing technologies support — some health and safety experts seem content to simply take whatever advice they receive, regardless of the source.
“The trouble is, sometimes we don’t know if it’s validated,” Sturm says. “Anybody can post something on Wikipedia. Rather than a thought-out process, it may be more of an opinion... A [safety] professional has to be able to take the information and digest it, analyze it, look at it from different angles.”
Another concern, he says, has to do with standards. While it’s all well and good that health and safety experts are able to share best practices easier than ever, sometimes non-standard systems are called for — when an industry faces peculiar risks in certain parts of the world, for example.
“That’s going to be a challenge in the future,” Sturm says. “With standardization, will it become too homogeneous? Will it meet everybody’s needs? It could create some friction.”
Another challenge: no matter how advanced the technology, the equipment and the software, it’s no good if people don’t use it.
McElhattan notes that following a gas explosion at a Pike River Coal Ltd. mine in New Zealand in 2010 (in which 29 people died), investigators discovered that gas detectors had been covered with plastic bags, probably so the alarms wouldn’t go off and hinder productivity.
McElhattan’s point: although installed, the technology wasn’t used, rendering it pointless.Judging from Curts’ words, this is a problem that health and safety experts will have to tackle no matter how advanced technology gets. “Regardless of how good the technology is, it’s useless if it’s not being used properly.”
Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer in Ottawa. You can reach him via