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Proactive risk management using wearable digital technologies

Author : Kevin Boyd, 2Value Solutions

02 November 2021

Too often safety professionals may feel as if they’re holding the parcel when the music stops. Despite best efforts, things still go wrong and the HSEQ team are left to manage the consequences as best they can. But what if it didn’t need to be this way? What if you had earlier warning of the changing risk picture? Action could be taken before the incident happens, enabling more proactive ways of working.

Image: 2Value Solutions
Image: 2Value Solutions

(Click here to view article in digital edition)

What if you immediately knew when a worker was first exposed to a high noise level or sniff of Benzene, where and for how long? Having this real-time awareness at your fingertips would allow you to rapidly investigate the hazard, put the necessary mitigations in place if required, and automatically monitor these mitigations to ensure they are working.

And, as more reliable data is gathered for each hazard, the ability to derive trusted leading indicators, automatically predict incidents before they happen, and even introduce real-time mitigations could be on the horizon. This vision is increasingly becoming a reality as risk intelligence data captured by digital technologies in the form of wearable sensors and wireless worker-worn hubs come to the market.

This article aims to explore new ways of collecting risk intelligence data related to the worker and the environment they work in (or travel through) to help the industry transform from reactive to more proactive ways of working.

Worker hazards

So which hazards could potentially cause harm to frontline workers? Depending on the type and location of the worksite, these could include gas, noise, air quality, dust, HAVS, heat stress, manual handling, vehicle collision, and (of course) Covid-19.

A problem to solve?

To validate if there was a problem to solve, feedback was gathered over the past 4 years from those who face these challenges every day.

It quickly became apparent there are two camps related to the capture and visualisation of hazard and risk data – the “rather not know” camp who worry about opening a can of worms, and the “measure to improve” camp who view timely access to quality data as an opportunity to better assess, control and even predict developing risk.

This is no different to the journey Maintenance teams started 40 years ago where similar camps existed. Today, few would go back to the “screwdriver on the ear” technique which was common practice at the time to assess machine condition. Thankfully, things have moved on as automated digital systems were increasingly adopted, delivering far more accurate and consistent data which is now relied upon to guide improvements and profit-impacting decisions.

So could the HSEQ community embark on a similar journey and, if so, what’s in it for us? In 2020, the annual cost of workplace injury to UK business was shown to have plateaued since 2011. If we could use data-driven insights to reduce this cost whilst improving corporate risk resilience, would that be a goal worth going after?

The challenges

However, if it was easy we would have done it by now. So, what has been holding us back?

The feedback gathered identified several challenges, starting with “not knowing what is happening right now”. The lack of visibility of transient and creeping hazards was a primary concern, as was the cumulative effect of exposure to one or more hazards, where a worker could be exposed but the controls may not offer the desired level of protection.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

And, unlike maintenance where the asset under analysis is typically fixed in one location, frontline workers are usually on the move covering different areas of the site during their working day. If it was possible for the worker to wear hazard-detecting sensors, this could allow data to be captured where the worker goes, and could be more cost-effective compared to installing more fixed sensors.

Walking sensors

The idea of walking sensors is not new. For years, specialist scientists have visited sites carrying portable equipment to measure data snapshots during noise surveys and the like. But what if we could simplify and automate this process, and extend it to any worker on the site if we wanted to?

Risk intelligence data could be captured automatically as frontline workers perform their normal daily tasks, with no impact on their productive time. Adding location details to this data helps us when we need to identify hotspot areas, diagnose the root cause, or know where to send the rescue team.

And if we could do all of this automated “data processing” at the worker, for each worker, this could help eliminate the dreaded data silos and enable easier scalability across the workforce to cover multiple trade disciplines and multiple sites in different countries.

Re-inventing the wheel?

Cost is often on our mind when we consider implementing new technologies so can we keep the cost down by using or re-purposing technology which we use on the site today?

Portable gas sensors are worn by frontline workers today to monitor gas levels in the vicinity of the worker. These alert the worker when pre-set limits are reached but often don’t alert supervisors or remote HSEQ teams.

However, all is not lost. Wearable digital hubs exist today which wirelessly capture and transmit data from multiple sensors in the workplace into a data cloud using commonly available networks such as 4G/LTE and WiFi. By wearing such a hub, alerts and gas level data could be captured automatically and relayed to the data cloud, supervisors and remote teams. Similarly other hazard data such as noise, HAVS and even an SOS call for help can be captured by the same hub and relayed to the workforce database residing in the cloud. Fusing the data at the worker ensures the headache of separate data silos for each hazard type (gas, noise and so on) is avoided.

Where wearing one hub type may not be suitable for a particular work task, digital hubs exist from different technology providers which offer alternative wearing options - on the worker’s belt, on their wrist, or even in their hard hat. Existing PPE garments can even be transformed into Smart PPE garments, allowing workers to plug-in miniaturised sensors which are now entering the market.

New risk management paradigm

The end result is that real-time visibility of the hazards and associated risk for each individual worker, trade group or the entire workforce is now available at your fingertips, giving you the means to better protect workers at your worksites and your customers’ sites.

Situational awareness is not only improved for the worker but a new level of connected awareness for co-workers, supervisors and remote/support teams is now possible.

Known hazards can be confirmed, providing re-assurance that your existing controls are adequate. Likewise, demonstrating compliance with the relevant legislation, both now and in the future, becomes easier and quicker through instant access to real-time and historical data. And, the use of virtual geofences could automate this visibility further, such as identifying the workers at risk in a specific area during an emergency.

Kevin Boyd, 2Value Solutions
Kevin Boyd, 2Value Solutions

Does it work in practice?

Recent field trials at a fabrication facility demonstrated the benefits of this new way of collecting risk intelligence data, together with the challenges to be addressed when deploying such a system. Real-time alerts helped to improve the situational awareness for both workers and the HSEQ team, triggering prompt investigation into the cause.

For the first time, transient hazards and task-related risks could be measured and detected, showing which worker was most at risk from what, when and where, and which tasks required higher mitigation controls. None of these benefits or insights were previously possible using the traditional manual way of working.

Hold on a minute

But let’s not get too carried away – introducing new technology to the workforce has its challenges.

Adoption acceptance by the workforce will depend on a number of factors including ease of use and ensuring work tasks and productivity are not negatively impacted.

And valid concerns such as data protection and privacy must also be addressed, perhaps by limiting access to those who need to know, when they need to know, such as the rescue team in an emergency.

Future opportunities

Although in their infancy, these digital technologies offer the opportunity for a step-change in the way we capture risk intelligence data to help us better manage risk and prevent incidents.

Until now, we have only touched on worker hazards, but couldn’t we use the same approach to measure localised Fugitive Emissions? On some sites this would be possible now. On others, the location accuracy may not be good enough in some areas of the site. However, this is a work in progress as location determination technologies are evolving to overcome this issue.

So, watch this space.

About the author:

Kevin Boyd is an independent advisor at 2Value Solutions with 35 years of experience using data-driven insights to solve problems in the areas of Condition Monitoring, Asset Integrity, Process Automation, Ex Inspection, Track & Trace, and Wearable Health & Safety. During this time he has mixed various leadership positions with on-site experience in many industries including Oil & Gas, PetroChem, Power Generation and Whisky.

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