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SLC 2023 Preview: Leveraging AI for a Personal Touch

Sept. 14, 2023
Artificial intelligence and vision processing creates massive amounts of data. It’s what you do with the information, which can go far beyond the raw data, that can lead to lasting changes for workers.

Safety is personal, but technology—and it’s millions of data points—can sometimes feel cold and impersonal.

It’s not an either/or situation but a yes/and situation, says Heather Chapman and Virginia Mackay. Data helps safety professionals reach more people, and it helps them do so with more personalized feedback. Those data points can help safety professionals be more efficient and productive with their time, and it can lead to improved outcomes for individual workers, who can be told how exactly to adjust their position for fewer ergonomics injuries.

EHS Today caught up with Chapman, head of ergonomics for Soter Analytics, and Mackay, senior health and safety advisor for United Farmers of Alberta, about how data and AI-vision processing can help mitigate and prevent safety risks. They will share their experiences at the Safety Leadership Conference, which will be held September 18-20 in Orlando, Florida.

More information about the conference, including registration, can be found at www.safetyleadershipconference.com. Below is a preview of what to expect from Chapman and Mackay’s presentation.

EHS Today: Safety often involves a personal touch, but technology can often feel impersonal. How can technology be used to support or complement what safety professionals already do, rather than take away from it?

Heather: Technology can give you all sorts of measurements and data, but it’s the safety person who is actually going to use that data. They’re going to make it relevant to the work that’s happening and apply it to the organization. So, the technology can help give us information to make good, informed decisions about how we protect our employees. It can help to make those decisions quickly, but how we get to those decisions and actually how we act on those decisions and convey the message is where safety people need to—and must—work with the employees to get buy-in.

Mackay:Certain technology can feel intrusive and impersonal to the worker, which takes away from the personal interaction they are seeking. Technology can facilitate communication; however, it cannot replace the relationship building that HSE professionals bring to the table. HSE professionals play a crucial role in interpreting rules and ensuring that organizations comply with all current regulations and standards. This requires a deep understanding of the organization’s culture, processes and goals. Technology can assist HSE professionals by processing vast amounts of data, which allows them to identify potential hazards and assess risks. By using this trending analysis and working with key stakeholders, they can stay ahead of the curve with their health and safety programs.

Heather, what’s one exciting (and potentially unexpected) way you have seen safety professionals using data and AI-vision processing to improve safety?

Chapman: When the video processing was originally released, it was for ergonomic assessments, which it does a great job at that. But I’ve worked at some organizations in the past year where we’re actually using video technology to build out job safety analyses, so essentially creating a visual job aid instead of just the ergo evals. This video processing is now part of the onboarding process and can be available on tablets at workstations to show you how to complete a job—not having to read a written instruction. Now, I just push a button and watch how the task is done. We actually filmed people at the organization doing the work, so it’s recognizable by all their employees. They say, “Hey, that’s our own people showing us how to do this right.” That’s been pretty cool to see.

Virginia, when did United Farmers of Alberta’s AI-vision journey begin, and what are the company’s plan for the future?

Virginia: In November 2021, there was great concern with the number of ergonomic injuries that we were experiencing at a distribution center. We have a lot of workers coming and going, and ergonomic injuries at one site were contributing to increased stats within our whole network. This is when I reached out to Heather, and we looked at what Soter Analytics had to offer. When I had done research on other devices, this is the one device that I thought would be well-received from the workers because it was a small device, and it was easy to use. When we implemented the program there, we knew we had a bit of a battle to bring down those injury rates and get people more aware of what they’re lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling. Within the first six months, we started to see some real, true, amazing results.

When I look at the stats from the time we started to today, we’ve had reported ergonomic injuries, but they have not rated a Workers’ Compensation Boards (WCB) claim. We’ve been able to interact differently. We use SoterTask to reenact what that worker was doing and to try and better improve that situation so we’re not having another ergonomic injury in that particular area. From 2021 to now, we’re only had one lost time claim at that center. It’s been absolutely amazing.

Our future is to continue using this device. We are implementing it in the rest of our network throughout the field. We’re getting some excellent results. We’re getting some great feedback from workers. We’ve actually made some changes in our operations in terms of material handling and storage, which we were never aware of before. It has made us more aware of what we thought was good practice was maybe not such a good practice.

Heather, for those who already use data and AI-vision processing, can you give some ideas for how to leverage the technology further?

Chapman: Usually when an organization starts, it’s in an area of the company, maybe a department or a location. So, if you’re already using it, and you have figured out your best practices, the next step is to expand and create this wider net of users so you can have a bigger impact with more people participating. Get departments outside of safety using the technology. For example, engineers can use the technology before purchasing new equipment or tools to evaluate how an employee’s ergonomic conditions will be impacted.

The other thing I see some people struggle with is this does generate a lot of data. It’s a hurdle to figure out what you should do with that data and then act on it. It’s not practical for us to think that our production or maintenance or engineering departments are going to be logging into the dashboard to see what’s going on. It’s far easier if we just provide them with a weekly summary report to say “Look, within your group, here’s what’s happening. You may want to touch base with these people to see why aren’t hazards reducing.” It gets them involved, and it gives other people outside of the safety group visibility to what’s going on and how they can actually take part in the process.

If the technology is used across multiple sites, meet with the site safety leaders monthly. Whether that’s in person or remote, it’s getting some people with real ownership within the organization engaged in the process, even if it’s a 15-minute meeting to let your vice president know, “In the last month, here’s what we’ve experienced. These are the pros, these are the cons, here’s what we’ve learned.” Summarize the information, so they feel connected to the program.

Share results often. As safety people, we’re in the dashboard, we’re seeing what’s happening and we’re seeing the good news but how does this actually impact employees? I think it’s really important that visually there’s something available for employees to see what’s happening, what’s going on. Because ultimately, we talked about trust already, but employees and leaders will be more engaged if they understand that the technology is helping to make the workplace safer. People want to see how technology is impacting their job. If you can visually show how it can actually help them, that makes them want to participate in this type of program.

Virginia, what’s something you were surprised by on your implementation journey?

Mackay:We make it voluntary for workers to be part of the program. I was surprised about how many people wanted to wear the device and see where they’re at. We actually got to a point at one location where we had to keep that box there a little longer because people were upset. They said, “It’s my turn now.” It’s become quite the challenge, because they’re competing against each other about who’s going to be the best in ergonomics. They said they couldn’t even tell they were wearing it; they loved that. I was a little surprised about that—and just how easy it is to use and implement the program.

Heather, for those looking to implement such technology, what are some aspects to consider and plan for in the short-, medium- and long-term?

Chapman: In the short-term, organizations really need to consider how they want to use this technology and what’s their reason for pursuing this type of technology. For many, it’s simply, “I want to reduce injuries.” For others, it’s part of our onboarding; it’s going to be part of our training program. You need to understand your reasons why you want to use this, then its setting goals and expectations and assuring you have budget to do this type of program. It’s not something that’s a two-month deal. If you really want to make an impact and have long-term gains, it’s at least a year, if not longer, commitment. We usually tell the organizations we work with you need a minimum of six weeks ahead of your launch to socialize the idea and just getting people onboarded to the whole process and the rationale behind the why.

Then, in the mid-term, look at how you’re going to train others. If you have a union committee, a safety committee or an ergonomics committee, I recommend training them and helping them own part of this program with you. That gets their participation and their input. Also, if you have your employees helping to run this program, what better message to the other employees that you’re trying to market to and get to participate. And just having other people help you as the safety person helps leverage your time.

Usually, when people start, it’s a site or a division. But, in theory, this should be considered as part of enterprise risk management for your entire operations, whether it’s nationally or globally. How does this play a role into all of these different divisions and into other departments? You get a ton of information about people’s hazardous movements from this type of technology. Why not build that into your human resources job descriptions? If you have physical demand analyses, this should be integrated into that. And then building it into existing systems, so if you have an early intervention program, a return to work, job safety analyses, etc. In the long-term, you want to embed this type of technology into existing systems so that it’s part of your normal operation.

In an ideal world, everyone would see the data, agree with the findings and allocate adequate budget for safety. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Do you have any advice for safety professionals that are trying to use safety technologies to improve or for someone who has that hard data but still doesn’t get buy-in?

Chapman: I think a big piece of this is organizational culture but also drilling down into the safety climate of an organization. You may have the hard data and the business case to say “Look, based on this type of work, we’re experiencing these injuries, and we think, because we’ve gone in with video processing and done some analysis, that if we spent $30,000 on this new engineering control, we’re going to reduce injuries.” If the culture isn’t there, the answer could very well be, “No thanks, we’re not going to do that. We don’t have budget allocated for that.”

The other thing is, let’s just say the culture is good, but the wearable technology is a stop gap for you. Maybe the solution you want to deploy ultimately is a six-figure solution, and it’s gonna take some capital funding and it’s not happening until next fiscal year. OK. Well, your stop gap is this wearable technology that coaches you into better body mechanics. So hopefully, overall, you’re reducing risk and people are learning and changing behaviors and it buys you time until you can actually implement a correct strategy.

Mackay:I would have to agree with Heather on that. It’s all about where your company is and about the culture you have currently that’s going to determine how successful you’re going to be with the program. If I look back at UFA, say eight to 10 years ago, our culture was not there. We would never have the buy-in to look at this, so I feel blessed that now have a great culture at, and we have the buy-in from the top. They strongly believe in safety, and they do whatever they can to improve safety at all of our locations, whether it be at a distribution center or our retail stores.

Virginia, what are some of the outcomes you are most proud of? What still eludes you?

Mackay:I would have to say the thing that I’m most proud of is the results that we’re getting. Our WCB ergonomic claims have gone down—and how easy that was just by using one small little device. I mean, who knew! I’m proud of our workers who have volunteered to be in the program. The feedback that we’re getting from them helps us improve the program and how we’re implementing it. Looking back from the time we first started until now, the way we implement the program is very, very different. It’s because we’ve had that good feedback.

What still eludes me sometimes is trying to get some of the workers to accept this AI technology. They’re always so suspicious of what you’re up to when you’re gathering all this data. One common concern is if I have a WCB claim, will this be held against me because I wore that device? No, but hose are the things that we still have to address fully. Other than that, we have more success than challenges when it comes to this program.

I imagine that’s pretty similar to what you’ve seen, Heather?

Chapman: Absolutely. Most people end up being quite proud of a reduction in injuries, which generally means a reduction in your workers’ compensation costs. And to Virginia’s point about full acceptance of AI, I think, across the board, every organization struggles with that, whether its wearable AI technology for ergonomics or if it’s getting used for something else, whether for productivity or in your trucks. People aren’t fully accepting of that yet. They feel like they’re being watched, so overcoming that is likely a challenge everywhere for everybody.

What advice do you have for those on their data vision and injury prevention journey?

Chapman: If you’re considering going down the path of wearable technology or video processing, you need to know your audience. Are they going to accept this type of technology? How do I need to propose this to them? How you speak to a union committee is going to be very different from how you would approach your CFO. So, knowing your audience and anticipating their questions and being prepared to answer those up front. They need to feel confident that you fully understand the technology, and its capabilities and limitations. You need to be able to alleviate concerns that people might have. Often, that comes in the form of in-person meetings, letting people ask you those questions and being able to answer those. And then just sharing and communicating what are our use cases: why are we going to use this, how are we going to use this, and why is this beneficial to you.

Mackay: My biggest thing is to do your homework. You need to pick the right technology for your organization. Start by defining your company’s health and safety problems and which technologies would be most effective for you. When it comes to any kind of program, whether it be AI technology or any other program, you’ve got to spend the time to introduce that program and do it well. Workers always need to know ahead of time what’s coming at them, so they have the time to absorb that information, ask the questions that they need to ask before you actually implement the program; that was, for us, key in terms of our success. We did spend time with the workers introducing what we were looking at implementing at each of those locations.

And then, once you’ve gathered all your data, especially when the workers have taken the time to volunteer to wear the device, they need to see that report. They need to see how well they did. They need that feedback of: This is where you were at the beginning of the program, and this is where you are right now at the end of the program. The only way that they can improve is by listening to those alerts from that device and the coaching from their supervisors. Or, if they didn’t improve, what can we do to help them, and this data will help us help them. We even look at the operations, so if they didn’t improve, what area do they work in? We can onw determine where we need to make a change operationally because this worker’s task didn’t improve. That’s what I would say is just gather the data and validate where they’re at. Feedback is pretty key.

One more important thing is to have your champions. We’re developing champions at each of our locations because I’m not always available. I spend more time with them with how the program works and how they can further coach the workers. They do involve me from time to time when they’re struggling with something and then we actually brainstorm and come up with ideas together on how we can make a change.

What’s one thing you hope attendees learn from your session at the Safety Leadership Conference?

Mackay: AI technology can elevate your existing programs and move your safety culture. It will enhance your program, and it’ll actually make you more aware of some of the challenges you might be having within your company that you don’t typically see, but you can see it in your stats.

Wearable devices can also help your new employees to develop those correct behaviors, and we’ve seen that at our distribution center. They start developing good behaviors right off the start before…it’s being proactive, is what it is. And it makes your existing employees more aware of some of the harmful habits that they have developed that they were not aware of. Everyone thinks that they’re good at lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling—and that they’re doing it right—but when you wear that device, it will tell you that maybe you’re not as good as you think you are. Maybe you’re complacent at some of those things that you’re doing. If anything, it’s going to address some of that complacency.

Chapman: I like to just give people practical steps that they can take. None of this technology is new anymore. It’s been around for years, so we all know it’s there and we basically know how it works. But I think it’s important, and what I hope people will see in the session, is how you can integrate this into your existing systems. How you could use this because there’s so many use cases and, to Virginia’s point, how you can enhance your existing safety culture and programs.

About the Author

Nicole Stempak

Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

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