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Mind the gap: How technology is creating safer working environments

29 January 2020

Hazardous working environments occur in multiple industries and sectors, all over the world. Such hazards cover everything from machinery and equipment that could potentially injure people, to ATEX-rated environments. In this article, Noel Sheppard, General Manager at Distec, discusses how technology is improving communication and operations in hazardous areas.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

(Click here to view article in digital edition)

Most of us are familiar with the processes, working practices and legal and regulatory frameworks which have evolved to mitigate these risks; we certainly recognise the Health and Safety Act posters on our office walls. But what about the technology innovations that are helping to reduce the impact of hazards and create safer working environments? Here innovation is abundant, and a raft of exciting hardware and software solutions are truly helping to keep workers safer amidst some of the most potentially dangerous conditions in the world.

Reliable communication

A foundational principle for keeping hazardous working environments safe is ensuring that all stakeholders can communicate with each other reliably. Without this, workers cannot be warned – or warn each other – of potential hazards. It is harder to implement safe working protocols and ensure that everyone is aware of the latest onsite movements and developments.

Communication, in this instance, means not only equipping all workers with appropriate devices for voice and data sharing, but also ensuring that an appropriate alert system is in place to warn the entire site of one-off hazardous events. And as devices such as portable radios and site-wide monitoring systems get more and more sophisticated, so on-site communication gets smoother and more sophisticated also. It is increasingly possible for on-site communications networks to incorporate rich data and automation, so that, say, when a worker begins operating a new piece of machinery, they receive automated alerts reminding them of core safety practices.

Lone workers

Lone workers can be placed in some of the most potentially hazardous conditions of all, without colleagues on hand to alert or assist if they get into difficulties. But as communication technologies like those outlined above get smarter and more efficient, so even individual, remote workers remain intricately connected to their teammates at other locations. Augmented reality headsets can help guide lone workers through complex tasks for which they might otherwise have just received voice instructions, for example.

Other technological innovations are reducing the need for lone workers altogether. IoT innovations, for example, are making it easier and easier for heavy machinery to be operated remotely, avoiding the need for single on-site operators.

Mobility across sites

In many industrial and construction settings, tracking the whereabouts of individual workers and major assets across the site is a key part of ensuring safety. Managers need to know where everyone and everything is at all times. When major pieces of machinery are being moved, workers need to be warned to keep out of the way.

Innovations in digital technology are making this far easier to achieve. Location trackers on key assets – and even wearable GPS sensors for workers – can together build an interactive, real-time picture of locations and movements, ensuring that the right workers are warned at the right time, and kept safe throughout.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Staff health and welfare

We’ve all heard of Fitbits for tracking how much exercise we’re doing. Similar wearable devices in hazardous working environments can help monitor staff health and welfare through factors like how many hours worked, heart rate, breath rate, and body temperature. Such data not only provides a real-time picture into workforce welfare and enables the proactive reallocation and resting of individuals who may need it, but it can also provide long-term insight into the effect of different workplaces on health.

Likewise, connected sensors throughout a working environment can measure environmental conditions such as levels of air pollutants, temperature, humidity and wind levels, providing instant insight into just how hazardous conditions are. Should worrying changes take place, then staff can be automatically alerted.

Operability in harsh conditions

All these technological innovations can only do their job of creating safer working environments if they are able to continue operating at the highest levels throughout the harsh environmental conditions we laid out at the start. This is where ruggedised hardware comes in – equipment which has been specifically designed to remain operable throughout extremes of temperature, moisture levels, chemical cleaning and unusual air conditions.

ATEX-rated environments, for example, are likely to feature large volumes of very fine dust in the air – so hardware needs to be specially designed to ensure that said dust cannot enter its casings. It also needs to be able to withstand potentially robust washing very frequently.

Technology: creating safer working environments

From construction sites to power stations, rugged outdoor environments to manufacturing facilities, millions of workplaces around the world need robust and effective means of mitigating hazards and keeping people safe as they work amongst them. Innovative technologies have been used to achieve this for centuries. From the earliest days of protecting clothing and guards on machinery, through to today’s exciting uses of IoT sensors, artificial intelligence and highly ruggedised hardware, the technology industry has been keeping workers safe.

About the author:

Noel Sheppard is Director of specialist hybrid technology solutions provider Distec, offering hardware and software solutions to sectors including healthcare, retail, manufacturing and transportation. The company, which was founded by Noel and his business partner in 1992, is part of KAMIC Group’s Electronics division.

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