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Enabling Industry 4.0 through connected safety

05 October 2018

Safety may not be the first application that springs to mind when the fourth industrial revolution is discussed. However, as it continues to transform workplaces across the industries, the way safety is managed is also changing, with even ‘low-tech’ personal protective equipment (PPE) becoming more intelligent. 

Here, Thomas Negre of Honeywell Industrial Safety explains how ‘connected safety’ is making safety management smarter and enhancing worker protection as well as productivity. 

Driven by rapid increases in data availability, computational power and connectivity, as well as new forms of human-machine interaction [1], industry 4.0 is enabling unprecedented access to real-time information. From manufacturing plants to downstream facilities, increasing levels of automation are being applied to a wide range of processes to improve efficiency and productivity, and cut operating costs. Similar trend is also evident in the industrial safety space, thanks to the latest advancements in connected safety technology. 

The European Framework Directive on Safety and Health at Work (Directive 89/391 EEC) obliges employers to take appropriate preventive measures to make work safer and healthier, stressing the importance of new forms of safety and health management as part of general management processes [2]. In the light of this many companies have implemented databases to better manage and maintain employees’ safety equipment and to record and monitor their exposure levels. Yet, this has traditionally been a paper-based process of manually inputting occupational safety and health data.

This piecemeal approach to safety could ultimately be putting workers at risk. With no reliable records it can be hard to ensure that PPE and other safety devices are properly maintained, fit for purpose, compliant with the latest regulation and that workers are actually using them correctly. It can also be time consuming and costly, hamper productivity and expose companies to costly fines. On average, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can expect to pay up to £40,000 a year for health and safety compliance, but could end up with a fine averaging £115,000 if found guilty of a breach [3].

Bringing more automation to safety management compliance could help resolve this challenge, and making safety equipment smarter is the key. By embedding PPE with sensors or radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology they become edge devices in the Internet of Things (IoT) that can collect and transmit data, speeding up data gathering and improving accuracy and efficiency.

Bluetooth® connectivity, for example, now enables a worker to automatically connect a portable gas detector or other device to their smartphone. Wireless connectivity combined with the latest software and cloud technology enable the safety manager to immediately view, on their laptop or smartphone, which worker is using the device, assess whether they have the required training and if the equipment complies with the latest regulation, is well-maintained and fit for purpose. The safety manager can access this information within seconds, whilst obtaining a wealth of other data such as gas concentration values and the number of safety incidents over a period of time. In hazardous environments having access to this kind of information is mission critical.

Confined spaces are among the most dangerous environments for workers across the industries, with risks including oxygen deficiency, exposure to toxic or flammable gases, high noise levels and falls. Being able to monitor workers’ biomedical values as well as their exposure levels in real-time enables safety managers to alert workers about a potentially dangerous situation, and helps guide emergency rescue operations.

As connectivity becomes more accessible and affordable, it also allows the connected safety infrastructure to expand beyond high-risk environments. The smartphone, in particular, has become a versatile personal data-gathering and transmitting hub that is opening up unprecedented opportunities in the area of safety, offering ease-of-use whilst meeting the requirements of industrial environments.

For example, smartphones are now able to connect to other devices such as gas detectors, so that even a worker not wearing a portable gas detector can be alerted if a gas leak is detected by a fixed device in a different part of the site. They also enable safety managers to access occupational safety and health data about a specific worker and intervene if, for example, they are not wearing hearing protection when it is required. The latest industrial smartphone apps also offer functionalities such as on demand training and provide both the worker and safety manager with information on which gas detectors and PPE are needed for that specific task.

The data these smart devices gather can also be stored to enable safety managers to run reports on a population of workers, or an individual worker, and monitor their exposure to hazardous substances over time. This is key to tackling ill health before it’s too late, with data informing decisions about working patterns so that, for example, a worker’s exposure levels over a particular shift are reduced.
By enabling PPE and portable gas detectors to automatically communicate data directly to the control room, automated safety compliance and monitoring can contribute to enhancing productivity. Firstly, workers don’t have to stop every few minutes to send the information, such as gas readings, back manually. Secondly, knowing that the equipment they’re using is fit for purpose and that their exposure levels are being monitored closely at all times, they can focus their full attention to the job in hand.

Looking to the future, while the benefits of automating safety management processes are apparent, one challenge for the safety professionals will be how to manage growing volumes of data effectively. Traditionally, safety managers have ‘owned’ the entire safety equipment management process, but data-driven safety monitoring and compliance processes might require the involvement of a broader team, where safety professionals will be supported by IT and health specialists, resulting in a more comprehensive safety strategy.

Safety is clearly moving away from its ‘analog’ past and embracing the digital age. It has a vital role to play in the transformation of today’s work environments to meet the needs of industry 4.0 era, helping improve safety and productivity. Ultimately, the workers themselves expect the technology they are given at work to offer the same ease-of-use to what they’re using at home, which is exactly what connected safety can help them achieve.

About the author    

Thomas Negre is Global Director - Gas Detection and Connected Industrial Worker at Honeywell Industrial Safety. He is responsible for strategic product management of portable and fixed gas detection products including wireless and software solutions. With over 15 years of experience in various sales and marketing roles in oil & gas, fire, hazmat and military industries, he has a wealth of technical expertise in industrial safety and process instrumentation.

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