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How mobile tech is reducing risk in hazardous environments

Author : Naz Dossa, CEO, Peoplesafe

04 August 2021

Keeping employees healthy and safe is a challenge for many employers – perhaps none more so than those whose staff work in hazardous environments. Fortunately for these organisations – many of which are now responsible for a higher number of lone workers – safety technology is evolving rapidly, with mobile solutions now providing a high level of protection for workers in even the most hazardous of workplaces.

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The COVID-19 pandemic forced a great number of businesses to change their ways of working, which has left many workers facing new health and safety risks. The number of lone workers has risen significantly in businesses across the world, as more workers now operate in isolation or out of earshot of their colleagues due to social distancing measures. While working alone, these workers are at a greater risk of health and safety incidents because they might not have anyone to call on if something goes wrong. This could mean it takes longer for lone workers to receive assistance when they need it, which could result in more serious injuries or even fatalities.

At the same time, the pandemic has also accelerated technology adoption across all sectors. A recent McKinsey study concluded that ‘companies have accelerated the digitisation of their...internal operations by three to four years’. And it appears that many businesses are turning to technology and smarter solutions to help protect lone working employees. When Peoplesafe surveyed over 120 health and safety professionals from public and private UK businesses in March 2021, almost half (47%) were already using lone worker technology, and 71% said that they expect their use of lone worker technology to increase.

Clearly, tech solutions are becoming a critical element in many lone workers’ health and safety toolkits – but for workers operating in hazardous environments, finding tech that’s designed for dangerous environments hasn’t always been easy. However, innovation in this area means that today, even those operating in the most hazardous environments can access the technology they need to stay connected and safe at all times.

Designed for dangerous environments

A wide range of workplaces are deemed hazardous by DSEAR (Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations) from nuclear power plants to petrol stations, although the level of hazard to employees will vary. Employers that require their employees to work in hazardous areas must therefore carry out a hazardous area study in addition to their standard risk assessment to determine how the environment may increase the health and safety risk to their employees and the measures they must put in place to protect them.

Employees working in a hazardous environment classed as Zone 0 can only carry equipment that is ATEX approved category 1, for example. Category 1 equipment is designed to be intrinsically safe, as its electrical and thermal energy is limited to a level below that required to ignite a specific hazardous substance. Until recently, this meant that smartphones – and the lone worker mobile apps that keep so many workers safe – were off-limits in hazardous areas.

The many benefits of mobile tech

Today, however, technology has advanced and there are now a number of smartphones that are approved by ATEX for hazardous environments. This is good news for workers who are required to work alone in these areas, as it means that they can use a lone worker app to stay in communication with their colleagues and call for help if needed.

While ATEX-rated lone worker devices are available, many employers prefer to provide their workers with lone worker mobile apps wherever appropriate, because it’s easier for them to combine multiple solutions into one app. This gives them the ability to create a truly bespoke solution that provides full protection for their employees. Lots of employees also prefer to use a mobile app, because it means they can stay safe without adding to the equipment they’re required to carry. And with rugged smartphones proving a more practical solution, remaining connected via a mobile device is an increasingly feasible option for remote workers.

Health and safety risks to employees don’t disappear the minute they leave a hazardous environment – many still face risks when travelling home at unsociable hours, or in inclement weather conditions, for example. Employers are also aware of the mental health impact that the pandemic has had on many of their employees. They therefore want to provide a lone worker solution that staff can use to access support 24/7, and a mobile app is one of the easiest ways that they can do that. Workers are much more likely to take a smartphone home with them, which means employers can continue to provide them with protection beyond the normal working day.

Investing in innovative solutions

When it comes to lone worker apps, however, they’re not all created equal. It’s important for employers to look out for apps that are not only compatible with ATEX approved smartphones, but also provide them with tools and features that will enable them to provide their employees with a superior level of protection.

Any lone worker app should provide 24/7 emergency support, for example, to ensure that workers can call for assistance whenever they need it. Employers should explore how this support is provided, as this could affect response times in the event of an emergency – an app that’s supported by a dedicated Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC) is likely to provide better protection for employees than one that doesn’t have its own call response team.

Naz Dossa, CEO, Peoplesafe
Naz Dossa, CEO, Peoplesafe

Those working in hazardous environments could also benefit from lone worker apps that feature geofencing alerts. Geofencing uses GPS technology to create a virtual ‘fence’ around a particular area, and some apps enable employers to set up their own geofences that will trigger a response when the smartphone enters or leaves a geofenced area. Employers that are striving to protect workers in hazardous areas could use this feature to remind employees to check or put on specific PPE when they’re entering a dangerous area, for example.

Connectivity is a core feature of the evolving safety technology market. By integrating technologies, for instance video tech or body worn devices with emergency support tech, employers are able to improve access to the right kind of help in the event of an incident, including alerting the emergency services.

Smarter solutions, safer employees

Lone worker solutions now come with so many useful features, from video links to geofencing, that many businesses are opting for a smarter approach to health and safety by investing in specific personal safety technology for their workers. In fact, over three quarters (78%) of the health and safety professionals Peoplesafe surveyed said that they believed lone worker technology should be re-classified as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), with many firms stating they already classify lone worker tech as PPE because they believe it is so vital to keeping workers safe.

Now that workers can safely take ATEX-rated and rugged smartphones into hazardous areas, lone workers in these dangerous environments can be given the same level of health and safety protection as their co-workers in less volatile locations. The easier it is for workers to use safety technology, and the less there is for them to carry, the more likely they are to access support when they need it – and that’s something that every employer should actively encourage.

About the author:

Naz Dossa is CEO at Peoplesafe and Chair of the BSIA Lone Working Group. Naz joined Peoplesafe in February 2020 as Chief Commercial Officer, becoming CEO in June that year. Having spent much of his career in the IT and telecoms sector, Naz is particularly interested in the role of technology in keeping workers safer.

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