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Are You Ready to Go Digital?

EHS professionals need to have a strategy to incorporate the latest technologies into the safety function.

How much time do you spend thinking about artificial intelligence? Does implementing virtual reality appear anywhere on your “to-do” list? What’s your strategy for using predictive analytics? What about blockchain or robotics or drones or the Internet of Things?

While you might think that investigating these kinds of disruptive technologies is somebody else’s job—isn’t that what those IT tech wizards get paid to do?—the application of these technologies to the safety function is very much in the near future. While you may not have noticed it yet, there’s a digital revolution underway in EHS, and the more prepared you are for it, the safer your workforce will be.

At least that’s the way global consulting firm Accenture sees it. The impetus behind this movement towards technologizing the safety discipline is a perceived slowdown in EHS performance gains. According to Pete Sullivan, EHS expert with Accenture, “Safety performance is plateauing due to changing expectations.”

During a presentation at the recent NSC Congress & Expo in Houston, he explained that “while the value of safety is undisputed, most of the gains made in previous waves of safety innovation have run out of steam. And further improvements have become progressively more difficult to achieve.”

Sullivan pointed to statistics compiled by the federal government that show that for asset-intensive companies (e.g., oil & gas, chemicals, transportation, mining & metals), total recordable incident rates (TRIRs) have remained unchanged or actually gotten a little worse over the past five years, indicating a pattern of stagnation when it comes to making worksites safer places. The problem is, the safety department’s projects tend to take a back seat to other departmental initiatives seeking internal funding.

But as Sullivan explained, that situation could be enhanced by savvy EHS professionals who are able to articulate to the C-suite the value of emerging technologies—that not only can they protect their employees but they can also protect the company’s bottom line. And based on an Accenture study on what kind of tech CEOs plan to invest in, the C-suite has gotten the message that digital technologies have the capability to improve safety across the board.

Current Accenture research suggests, for instance, that companies could see TRIR improvements of 20% or more from these technologies. The power of predictive analytics, for instance, would allow companies to predict high-potential worker incidents or inherent fatigue risk levels, while sensor-based technology could predict systems failures.

Imagine, for instance, having technology that would allow you to track people and assets in your facility. As Sullivan explained, you would have real-time visibility for emergency mustering and security. Dynamic barrier solutions using video analytics could provide an automated view of risks across operations, even down to the equipment level.

“Companies are already starting to invest in capital expenditures based on how they’ll impact the safety function,” observed Adam Cooper, a managing director at Accenture. However, he added, that situation is placing greater expectations on the safety function to improve performance.

Most CEOs, Cooper said, have stopped asking, “What is digital?” and are now asking, “How can we best use digital in our companies?” Speaking to an audience of EHS professionals, Cooper stressed, “the safety function needs to have a seat at the table and you need to know what role you’ll play in this digital revolution.”

Referring to the concept of technical debt, he pointed out, “Every day that you don’t invest in new technology, you get deeper and deeper in debt in terms of what it will eventually cost you to replace your outdated technology.” And for the safety function, that cost is measured not only in dollars but in lives.

It’s important, Cooper said, that you have the right talent to shape and execute your digital strategy. As data gets more predictive, its capabilities to improve safety becomes greater, and hiring data scientists to work with the safety function will become a key strategy for EHS professionals. And keep in mind that he data sets of your suppliers and customers are becoming more important as well. The key, he said, is being able to identify where are the greatest risk areas where you need to improve, and how can technology best enable that?

Not every technology will work for every company, and the investment they require can be significant. It’s important to understand exactly how your workers will be using the technology, and to educate yourself on what’s realistic for your operation and what’s just throwing money away on new tools that nobody will ever use. Your digital strategy, in fact, should basically mirror your EHS strategy by helping ensure that you put your best people in situations where they can get the job done in the safest way.

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