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Safety at Your Fingertips

Mobile devices and predictive analytics are making it possible for workers to literally wear safety on their sleeves.

For a company the size of retail giant Walmart, ensuring the safety of more than 90,000 workers employed in more than 150 distribution centers is no small undertaking. Warehouses and loading docks are notorious for workplace incidents (which of course are notoriously expensive); so, Walmart set itself the goal of reducing OSHA recordable incidents. That meant the retailer would need to improve its workers’ awareness of safety practices. Walmart needed to create a safety culture, but with a workforce that encompasses all age groups and generations, that would take some doing. In fact, it would take a new breed of safety technology.

Walmart opted for a microlearning solution, one that lets each employee access the company’s safety training on their own terms. Gamification doesn’t really adequately describe the microlearning process; certainly, workplace safety isn’t meant to be a game. Yet, the attraction to microlearning technology is that it engages a worker in a way that immediately gets their attention and keeps it—in Walmart’s case, for roughly five minutes at a time, through a series of entertainingly produced safety scenarios and questions. 

The results have been impressive: a 91% participation rate; an increase in knowledge levels on safety by as much as 15%; and a reduction in recordable incident rates at eight Walmart distribution centers of 54%.

Walmart’s experience with microlearning is a scenario that’s becoming increasingly common throughout numerous industries. Thanks to the widespread popularity of laptops, tablets and smartphones, microlearning has emerged as one of the fastest-growing technologies used by companies to enhance the safety of their workforce and workplace. EHS Today recently conducted a study on behalf of safety technology provider Cority called “EHS Embraces the Technology Revolution,” which found that more than half (54%) of safety leaders surveyed already are using microlearning to train their employees.

SAFETY AT HAND

Microlearning is just one of many technologies being pilot tested and in some cases fully adopted by companies looking for a way to improve their safety operations, and perhaps other areas of the company as well. Take, for instance, mobile and smartphone apps, which have become almost ubiquitous in the workplace and are now capable of improving worker health and safety. Thanks to technology that’s small enough, comfortable enough and indeed fashionable enough to be worn by employees at all times (even off-the-job), wearable safety devices are now as close as a worker’s fingertips.

Tech giant IBM announced earlier this year a collaborative initiative with several device manufacturers to develop wearables, smart devices and environmental sensors to monitor worker safety in hazardous situations. This includes such things as a shirt equipped with environmental and biometric devices; “smart” hard hats that provide situational awareness capabilities to workers; and activity trackers that can monitor worker heart rates and “man-down” events.


“Mobile devices and applications that enable users to report incidents and safety observations and complete inspections and tasks in the field or on the shop floor are finally gaining traction,” explains Pam Bobbitt, vice president, product marketing at Cority. “Many organizations are also leveraging mobile devices in new ways – using iPads as sensor devices to conduct noise sampling. This is amazing because not only are you saving money on specialized equipment and don’t have to bring in third parties, you now have easy and direct access—enabling you to take more samples, get better data and make better decisions. Newer technologies like wearables, fatigue monitors and smart PPE are also poised to have a big impact on workplace safety.”
Other than safety management systems, mobile devices are considered relevant to safety operations by 64% of safety professionals, according to the safety tech study. Only safety management systems (at 85%) scored higher on a list of 18 safety technologies (Figure 1).  Also, 56% of respondents already are using mobile safety devices in their workplace, and another 25% intend to do so within two years, which again puts it just behind safety management systems for current or near-term use (Figure 2).

In other words, rather than calling it a “killer app,” it might be more accurate to call mobile safety devices a “savior app.”

FIGURE 1

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FIGURE 2

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CONTROLLING RISK AND PREVENTING INCIDENTS

The real potential of safety technology is in its transformative impact, in how it can provide information to workers to help them control risk and prevent incidents. It offers immediate access to key information that helps a worker view the risk assessment for the job, safety data sheet, work instructions and other key information to ensure they are working safely, according to Bobbitt.


Predictive analytics, another safety technology, offers a way to use data to provide insights to workplace situations. “Let’s take completing a safety inspection as an example,” Bobbitt explains. “The employee completes the inspection; they can be notified with a message like ‘10 of your fellow employees in other facilities reported an observation noting signs of leaking on this piece of equipment. Click here to access that information.’ The employee doing the inspection now knows to look closer in certain areas and can potentially identify an issue that will prevent an incident such as equipment failure or spill and release. Operations benefits as well because this prevents a potential shutdown of production.”

Looking again at the EHS Today/Cority survey, another safety trend on the horizon are the technologies designed to make a workplace safer by removing human workers entirely: robots, drones, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence. Similarly, technologies such as virtual reality, exoskeletons, sensors embedded in PPE and the Internet of Things offer ways to protect the worker while distancing them somewhat—or in some cases, entirely—from hazardous or physically demanding situations.

The biggest barrier to technology adoption for these types of technologies is, not surprisingly, budgetary restrictions. Indeed, as the survey indicates, safety leaders need to be able to articulate how any of these new technologies can enhance and improve workplace safety if they hope to get budgetary approval for new initiatives.

“What often happens is that companies forget the value and ROI of these new devices and technologies will provide as it takes time and investment,” Bobbitt explains. 

A strategy she recommends is to conduct short pilot tests with a small set of employees for a defined, short period of time. Then look at the data from the pilot and evaluate if it provided the value you thought it would. 

“There may be a clear business case or you may find no business case,” she observes. 

However, she adds, the investment is relatively small and it’s far preferable to just sitting on the sidelines while your competitors are gaining a technological edge on safety.  

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