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Labor Shortages Won’t Be Solved with Technology Alone

March 2, 2022
Firmwide controls and processes are vital to building a safer and more resilient workplace.

2022 is already proving to be another year fraught with uncertainty, as organizations continue to face deep supply chain disruptions and workplace risks stemming from ongoing labor shortages.

Now, more than ever, new and innovative technologies are being deployed—or considered for deployment—to answer workforce availability issues and improve safety. However, these technologies won’t provide the desired benefits without careful management, and they require well planned implementation and follow-up to succeed.

The COVID-19 pandemic was only the start of these issues, which now include a shift in expectations about the nature of the workplace itself and willingness to participate in various roles. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.5 million U.S. workers left their jobs in November, part of a phenomenon commonly referred to as the Great Resignation. Further mixed job growth numbers in December indicate the headwinds of 2021 haven’t yet abated; the January 2022 jobs report suggests a slight rebound but nowhere near a full recovery.

As the labor market continues to fluctuate, business leaders are facing the harsh reality that these new dynamics and challenges might be here to stay. Part of the changing nature of the workplace includes heightened expectations and demands from employees for health and safety protections. All the while, companies have begun investing heavily in new technologies built, in part, to help address a scarcity of workers.

Amid this new era of labor shortages and technological innovation, leaders must actively rethink their workforce structures to achieve their goals and establish a more stable workforce with a level of safety and health controls fit for the times.

Adapting to New Workplace Dynamics

Automation has long been an avenue for companies to improve production capacity and reduce risks from manual operations, and the recent shake up in the labor market has only increased consideration and adoption of these solutions. Data compiled by the Association for Advancing Automation notes that from January to September 2021, factories and other industrial users ordered 29,000 robots, 37% more than during the same period the previous year, valued at $1.48 billion.

We believe this trend will continue throughout 2022 and beyond, as we have already seen how the global pandemic has spurred innovative uses and applications of automation and robotics. In our work with a range of global Fortune 500 companies, we have seen a rise in the use of automation beyond traditional production and warehousing robot applications. Use cases include drones and virtual reality (VR) technology for facility inspections and audits; special purpose exoskeletons for manual tasks; and wearables, such as watches and health sensors, that help mitigate or prevent risks that can lead to injuries.

For example, one major electric infrastructure operator implemented a combination of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to complete tower and conductor inspections. The company also permanently installed sensors to monitor remote facility and equipment conditions. This sensor use marks a growth in workplace technology applications, from predictive maintenance to health and safety considerations. And in heavy construction, fatigue and heat stress monitoring are among the risk controls that have been automated to improve safety and well-being on the worksite.

While these and other similar technological additions bring significant increases in productivity and benefits, they may come with unanticipated side effects. Introducing complex technology into any workplace is almost guaranteed to create conflict between man and machine, particularly if workers view their technological counterparts as a threat to their job security or even their physical safety. 

Put simply, challenging the status quo with new innovations in this way threatens to put undue stress on a workforce. It will require leaders to embrace innovative approachesnot just to technology, but also to environmental, health and safety (EHS) tactics to drive safety performance, lower costs, improve oversight and increase skills.

Unintended Consequences

Over the past few years, the manufacturing industry has seen a significant uptick in research and initiatives around exoskeletons, the mechanical apparatuses that can help increase the size and quantity of loads workers can move and potentially reduce workplace injury caused by repetitive tasks. 

In concept, exoskeletons have the potential to use active power-assist, but in current practice this is a technology still too rife with potential dangers to be ready for widespread industrial application. The more common passive, unpowered exoskeletons still offer many benefits to workers without the considerable risks of powered devices. However, there is still a list of EHS procedures, policies and decisions that need to be considered before any of those benefits can be reaped. 

By adding technology like an exoskeleton or robot to the workplace, organizations face unintended consequences. One is the added responsibility on their workforce to ensure appropriate use, integration and handling. For example, one recent study found that while workers enjoyed physical benefits from exoskeleton usage, they also endured taxing mental fatigue while working with the device. Another unintended consequence is the need for firmwide ownership of these controls.

Organizations need to consider those unintended consequences and ask themselves several questions before introducing new technology, including: 

  • Did we plan to buy the technology with enough time in advance for someone to ensure it arrived as ordered, is in working condition, and is properly assembled and set up?
  • Did we design a site and task-specific training program? Did we allocate proper time to train users?
  • Did we outline proper care and procedures for upkeep? Is the technology regularly cleaned? Where is it stored when not in use? Has it been stored properly? How long should a user be required to work using it? What happens when it gets damaged?
  • Do we have checks and controls in place for proper use? Is someone checking that the technology is working properly, that it is being used in the correct manner or whether it might need adjustment?
  • Do we have the right people in place for all these new controls and responsibilities?
  • Is our executive team involved? Is our chief risk officer working alongside our operations, HR and EHS experts?
  • Has the technology responsibility been shared across the organization?

Companies must perform a high-wire act when introducing technology into the workplace. As good as it feels to introduce new efficiencies into monotonous processes, leaders have a responsibility to always fully vet and scrutinize technologies to ensure they achieve the desired results without risking employee health and safety.

Policy, Controls and Procedures Drive Long-term Success

Organizations that look to technologies (e.g., exoskeletons, robots, cobots, wearables or drones) as the cure-all for labor shortages will likely become disillusioned. The decision to purchase the tool is the easiest step, but the implementation may not be so easy. To drive long-term success, organizations must take five key steps prior to purchase. 

  1. Establish clear goals and objectives. It is important to identify why change is needed and develop a comprehensive strategic roadmap. Developing a road map provides a clearer direction for organizations to follow and ensure goals and objectives are met.
  2. Consider your resources. Where has this technology already been used in similar applications, and what were the lessons learned? Can the company tap additional resources to get a fuller scope of any adjustments that should be made before demos and implementation?
  3. Bring in stakeholders early. Design and review for EHS and demo before purchase.
  4. Pilot and test before full rollout. This step will allow an organization to see its strategy in action before rollout, providing the opportunity to refine safety strategy and procedures for use.
  5. Measure performance to objectives. Once a technology has been implemented, review the results or data points to make sure the company is on target. How is this reshaping the workforce? What can the company do better for ongoing success?

Throughout this process, it’s critical to keep in mind that technology will not replace the human element. Rather, technology will shift roles and duties, sometimes in a more complex direction. It is therefore essential that leaders prioritize their people and build a culture where sharing and collaboration is a top priority.

As organizations continue to tackle industry-wide labor shortages and strains, they will no doubt increase their adoption and introduction of technology in 2022 and beyond. Those that take the steps now to think both strategically and tactically about incorporating these technologies into their organization—without putting employee safety in any additional jeopardy—will be better positioned to develop a more resilient workforce for tomorrow.

David Natalizia is an EHS principal consultant for BSI’s Health, Safety and Well-Being division, where he works with performance- and leadership-focused clients to help them pursue excellence in workplace safety, health, and well-being solutions.

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