The age of the ‘interconnected worker’
05 May 2021
Many years ago, life was simple, or so it seemed. If something needed to be done, appropriate forms would be filled in and we’d disappear off into some part of the plant and return later when the work was completed or left in a state where we could carry on with it tomorrow. Aside from the odd visit or the radio message, we would be left alone and depending on the work, might not appear back in our normal break area for quite some time.
Examples of unsafe acts while working at height with little regard for personal safety.
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Of course, the world has moved on. Industrial accidents and improved legislation have seen to that and the responsibility for safety continues to be driven more and more forcefully into the remit of the senior management of every company, with less and less recourse for them to hand off the work to HSE, quality, reliability, operations and the other myriad of departments involved. This is evidenced by the recent publication of ISO 31000, which puts the responsibility squarely into the hands of the executives of any business.
But what does this mean for workers? It’s interesting to note that generally fatalities at sites fall into three main categories, each contributing around a third to the overall total. In simplest terms, these are slips, trips and falls, human error/unsafe acts, and contact with moving objects (vehicles, lifting & moving objects and equipment). In many ways, these are much the same risks as our forebearers had to beware. In the main, I would argue that whilst there have been changes, particularly in high hazard industries, most of the industry’s focus has been on improving the plant’s capability and efficiency and often the result has been a reduction in workforce numbers, leading to everyone having less time to do more things.
In many parts of the world, while there have been great leaps in technological capability and productivity, the safety of workers has been left behind. It is an unfortunate truth that is difficult to swallow, but one only has to spend a small amount of time on media sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook to see regular examples of unsafe acts, often being caught on camera by willing participants. I say willing because they do nothing to stop the activities that are being carried out.
Not all of these are filmed in less developed countries either. If we consider statistics from the 2019 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in the USA, we get the following data:
- Fatalities resulting from slips, trips and falls increased 11% over the previous year. This implies that we struggle to mitigate particularly simple risks.
- Workers 55 and older accounted for 38% of fatalities. Up 8% on 2018 so experience only takes you so far.
- Exposure to harmful substances or environments was the highest number ever recorded with 642 fatalities.
I will quote Einstein at this point and agree with him that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, so the question is why has safety fallen behind? After all, the ideal methodology for any business should align with the rules of SQDC, in that we do nothing until it is safe to work, then we make sure that quality is right and once that’s in place we get the delivery right and only then should we look at how to make a business more profitable.
Digital Field Assistant Technology
The truth is that safety hasn’t really fallen behind and there are lots of solutions available that allow work to be carried out in a more intelligent way by the use of technology, but there is a reticence to use them for a whole multitude of reasons. These include cost concerns, new ways of working and training, additional time concerns, and often an existing culture of acceptance that is almost certainly the hardest thing to change in any industry.
However, if we look at costs from a different perspective, and consider data from 2019/20 health and safety statistics published by the UK HSE we see that:
- 1.6 million people are suffering from work related illnesses.
- 693,000 working people sustained an injury at work according to the labour force survey and 38.8 million days were lost to work related ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries in 2019/20.
- The estimated cost of injuries and ill health from current working conditions in 2018/19 was £16.2 billion.
Additional to the above, those responsible for environmental crimes, which often go hand in hand with a lack of safety awareness and responsibility hit record levels in 2020 with 862 penalties issued totalling £254.7m with an average size of £15,000 (Source: ENDS report key trends in environmental fines in 2020). This begs the question can we really afford not to invest in safer control of work, given the huge costs when things go wrong? Digital Control of Work software, such as Yokogawa RAP’s, is an example of a more intelligent way to manage safe working at plants of any size and in any industry.
Safety systems fall into the category of ORM or Operational Risk Management and are a way of trying to make sure that work is carried out safely and efficiently with minimum risk to employees or contracted workers carrying out the required tasks. These systems break down into digital solutions and hardware solutions and the two should work together in harmony. The term ‘connected worker’ is sometimes used to define the process but in many ways the term ‘interconnected worker’ or ‘integrated worker’ is probably better, because the information should be flowing in both directions, giving the worker access to site information whilst at the same time allowing the site to gain information from the workers themselves, in terms of their own situation as well as their effect on plant conditions.
Digital solutions include:
- Control of Work Software (for risk assessments, permits and isolation management including key items such as critical equipment and barriers)
- Worker Software (shift logs, shift handover, worker rounds)
Safe working with the workforce technologically interconnected with the plant
- Mobile and mapping capabilities (to see the work easily)
- Audit, incident and change management software
- Environmental monitoring systems
Wearable solutions include:
- Worker location tracking
- Conditional analysis (noise, gas readings, etc)
- Worker health tracking (can be passive or active)
- Communication systems (headsets, radios, wireless and mobile devices)
All this could lead one to believe that workers need to visit the gym more often to work out if they are going to be carrying all of this kit in addition to normal and required PPE, but the truth is that modern technology has far better form and fit than even 5 or 10 years ago, making the connections to and from workers more possible and affordable and all without burying the worker in a mass of equipment that could make them look more like a deep sea diver!
Major gains can be achieved throughout organisations by focusing on safety first. These include:
- Less paperwork management
- Risks are made easier to see and understand
- Real time activity can be confirmed without having to walk back to an office location
Mark Breese, Yokogawa RAP
- Health can be monitored in real time
All the above leads to not only a plant where there is less risk of a safety or environmental incident, but also to a more efficient workplace, and by integrating workers into the plant in a more meaningful way, they become a part of the system itself as opposed to sitting outside it. Indeed, the digitally integrated worker is the next step beyond industry 4.0 where traditional manufacturing processes are automated. To quote the European Commission, “the next step (Industry 5.0) is to place the wellbeing of the worker at the centre of the production process and use new technologies to provide prosperity beyond jobs and growth while respecting the production limits of the planet”.
That leads to the question of what is a digitally integrated worker? It seems a simple question, but the answers are myriad depending on the work required. It also leads to the question of whether ‘worker’ is a term exclusively applied to humans or not, because in many high-risk applications, robots have become the workforce of choice.
At first glance, robotics takes the risks from safety issues away, and in terms of protecting humans it does that admirably, but what about the safety of the robots themselves? Interestingly, not only do risk assessments still apply, but they will be different for robot working to human working. The best example is stairs where mitigating the risk of falling for a human might be to fit and use a handrail whereas for a robot the solution will be a guided ramp. But what if the area is wet and slippery? In such cases the handrail will still help but the ramp becomes a significantly more dangerous issue to mitigate.
The answer is that there is a balance between robotics and people, where the two must again be integrated with one another for the maximum benefit to the safety of the workers themselves, whatever form they may take, and of the plant they are working on.
To summarise, a focus on safety and a general culture where safety comes first will lead not only to a safer workforce, but to one that is more efficient and productive and where there is a significantly lower risk of incidents and the costs and lost time associated with them. By using the digital tools and wearable technologies available within the market, it is possible to truly integrate workers within a plant environment, allowing them to safely carry out their jobs more easily and in the knowledge that they are safer in doing their work.
About the author:
Mark Breese is Global Sales Manager at Yokogawa RAP. As well as being a Chartered Chemist and member of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Mark has almost 30 years’ plant and process industry experience across a variety of industries. Starting as a chemical process engineer, Mark has also worked in technical applications support, product management, sales, marketing, engineering, and R&D. He has also been granted several patents for novel industrial equipment designs.
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