New technologies helping to improve worker safety
28 April 2022
Millions of workplace accidents happen each year, many of which are within the power of employers to prevent. According to recent research, while overall worker safety has improved over the last decade, some industries seem to have plateaued or even reverted in recent years.
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The situations considered most hazardous by the surveyed environment, health, and safety (EHS) professionals are what you might expect. This includes working at heights, with electricity, or operating machinery. However, these factors alone often don’t cause accidents. Secondary hazards tend to factor in. Common factors listed include human error or fatigue, neglect of safety procedures, and inadequate training.
Technology can help to mitigate hazards
EHS professionals see three technologies with the most potential for addressing these secondary hazards – AR/VR, AI, big data, and wearables. All three of these technologies either require or can be made more effective or cost-effective by being coupled with a rugged tablet in the near future.
Augmented reality (AR) need not require a head-mounted device (HMD). It can be done via an overlay on a tablet screen at less cost. If you do use an HMD for either augmented or virtual reality (VR), having at least some of the computing work done in a rugged tablet instead of the HMD, or some other piece of specialised wearable tech, is likely to be more cost-effective. It is less likely to inspire apprehension in those facing the prospect of having a computer on their head or their body.
AI & Big Data
Advanced robotics enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) and big data has tremendous potential to improve worker safety. However, the move from Industry 4.0 to Industry 5.0 will see the widespread deployment of collaborative robots (cobots). These are more functionally flexible than the typical industrial automatons in use today. A rugged tablet will prove an effective way to work with them.
Wearables can monitor a worker’s health and vital signs, including signs of fatigue or waning attention. However, if a worker is in a remote location, a wearable might not have the long-range transmission capabilities needed to stay connected. Such capabilities would drain a wearable-sized battery, as would the broadband capabilities required to enhance its functionality and security with edge computing.
However, many industries that might use such workers’ safety technologies, coupled with rugged tablets, might also require these technologies to be intrinsically safe.
What is intrinsic safety?
Intrinsic safety is a protection technique applied to electrical and wiring products. This is to ensure safe operation in hazardous areas by limiting the energy available for ignition. Intrinsic safety may include electrostatic discharges, hot surfaces, heat, friction, or spark. A product rated as “intrinsically safe” is designed and certified to be incapable of producing heat or spark sufficient to ignite an explosive atmosphere.
When a tablet is rated as intrinsically safe, it is rated to ATEX/IECEx standards (depending on the geographic region) for intrinsic safety in Zone 2/22 conditions under regular operation. Zone 2 means the atmosphere is not typically explosive, but there is a risk if fumes (normally petrochemical fumes) escape. In Zone 22, the atmosphere is also not ordinarily explosive. However, there is potential if an excess of powder or dust enters the atmosphere due to some problem.
Digital transformation is driving adoption of intrinsically safe technology
With the digital transformation of industries that operate with such hazards increasingly taking on a mobile component, the need for intrinsically safe technologies is growing. But beyond the transformation drive, sectors that use intrinsically-safe tablets, such as oil & gas, mining, and certain utilities, face other pressures beyond worker safety driving adoption.
During the pandemic, the doing of specific tasks by pairs or teams has become problematic. It is becoming increasingly necessary to do these tasks alone, at least physically. But with a ruggedized tablet, a solo worker can receive spoken or visual instructions from HQ or even AR overlay. And as an added benefit, that expert at HQ can lend their expertise to many more tasks this way than they ever could in the field.
One type of remote guidance that warrants special attention is isolated inspection. Facilities such as mines and oil rigs must be periodically inspected for safety. They can be challenging to examine under normal circumstances if they are in remote locations, but the pandemic has made things even harder, and there are no guarantees as to when it will end. Remote guided inspection, where a worker onsite carries around a tablet with a camera, remotely piloted by an offsite inspector, has filled this gap in many instances.
An aging workforce
Many hazardous industries will see a large portion of their workforce retire over the next few years and employers don’t want to train their replacements in classrooms. They want to train them in the field, in context, using remote guidance or video instruction. It is best to do so using an intrinsically safe rugged device, which gives trainees and instructors access to a wealth of information at all times, wherever they are in the field.
Paul Waddilove, MD, Getac
Other features to look for in intrinsically safe tablets
Intrinsic safety relates to explosion risk, but there are other features you’ll want in an intrinsically safe tablet. This is because you may be using it for many different things over a long work shift.
Advanced connectivity capability
Intrinsically safe Wi-Fi access points are costly. Hazardous areas like oil refineries might have more ground to cover than is ideal for a Wi-Fi network. Another dangerous industry where Wi-Fi can be problematic is mining, with its irregular, obstructive, shape-changing landscape. Private mobile networks can offer the range and comparable network capacity you need for mobile video streaming and augmented reality overlay for both industries and many others.
Full work shift operation with powerful batteries
In an area where sparks are a concern, you can’t just plug your device into a local wall socket when it runs low on power. It would be best if you had long battery life, preferably with the ability to swap out a drained battery, without a tool, without operational interruption (i.e., hot-swapping), so you can stay in the field until the job is done.
There may be very little shade if you’re in an open-pit mine, an oil field, or at a remote utility site. So, if you are receiving AR overlay instructions on your tablet’s screen, direct sunlight can make them impossible to see if the screen is dim. It is recommended to have at least 800 nits of brightness to guarantee viewability out in the open on a bright sunny day. In doing so, this creates an even greater need for that long battery life mentioned earlier.
Digital transformation offers a wealth of proven productivity gains but many organisations remain wary of digitising operations in hazardous areas where pen and paper has traditionally been the norm. Intrinsically safe technology can help to overcome many of these concerns, optimising worker safety while simultaneously paving the way for adoption of exciting new technologies such as AR/VR, AI and big data.
About the author:
Paul Waddilove is the UK Managing Director for Getac, a manufacturer of rugged devices and solutions. Paul has worked in the rugged device industry since 1998.
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