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Now trending in workplace safety: the next best tech thing

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HOUSTON — Technology is the next frontier of workplace safety, according to experts at the National Safety Council Congress and Expo.

Automation that hands off riskier jobs to machines, artificial intelligence that can help manage safety concerns such as protocols for preventing injuries, sensors that can tell a worker that he or she is in a dangerous area, wearables that measure fatigue, exoskeletons that help a person lift heavy objects, and big data that can find patterns to help craft better risk management strategies were among the latest technologies discussed at the council’s annual conference in Houston.

The list, as Dr. Lydia Boyd Campbell, IBM’s chief medical officer and leader of IBM's Corporate Health and Safety Organization in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, rattled off in her introduction, is expansive and ever-changing.

“There is a lot of buzz around these terms you hear … I believe that we are just scratching the surface,” she said.

Workplace safety officials are now tasked with keeping up these technological advancements, said James Dorris, vice president of environment health and safety for Stamford, Connecticut-based United Rentals Inc.

“In the future, being able to demonstrate your competency is currency,” he said. “In order for us to stay relevant, we have to think innovation.”

Dr. Boyd Campbell spoke of IBM’s own Watson program, which uses artificial intelligence to improve safety functions by helping answer questions posed by workers worldwide. “(Watson) doesn’t just give you answers or predictive modeling … over time it will be able to identify relationships, learning which methodologies work better,” which “enables safety (professionals) to be more proactive,” she said.

“The intent is not to have any cognitive technology replace people, but create a synergist relationship … it will be man plus machine,” she said.

Michelle Garner-Janna, executive director for corporate health and safety of Columbus, Indiana-based Cummins Inc., which designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel engines and related technology, said technology there is a constant evolution.

Referring to the term “Industry 4.0,” what she called the “fourth” industrial revolution that includes automation and other technologies, Ms. Garner-Janna said of her company’s multipronged approach: “We don’t have a silver bullet on the one thing that has worked for us.”

“The idea isn’t to go out and get the cool thing,” she said. “The idea is to go out there and find out what are my biggest causes of injuries?”

From there, companies can link technology to reduce injuries, “connecting technology across factories with what we could deem a smart factory,” Ms. Garner-Janna said of a system that operates with less risk thanks to technology.

One technology that has worked for Cummins’ factories is a “powered industrial vehicle positioning system” that attaches sensors to sensors on vehicles, equipment and people to provide project managers a “heat map” of human and machinery traffic patterns about a work zone, she said.

“We want to make sure our movement of that product is happening in a safe manner,” she said of some of the items that are manufactured and moved around via forklifts, including massive diesel engines and more.

“You can track where your forklifts are moving,” said Ms. Garner-Janna. “It can alert the drivers of the forklifts and help you reduce the risk.”

Another technology that works is “additive manufacturing,” which uses a 3D printer to design objects such as handles to assist with manufacturing tasks.

Ms. Garner-Janna showed the audience a before-and-after slide of a worker attempting to perform a task without and with a purple assistant handle, making the job easier and causing less slippage of hands. That handle had been created on a 3D printer.

With this “you can design a solution to be what you need, when you need it, in a short amount of time,” she said.

Dr. Boyd Campbell said she is optimistic about what’s to come. “All of this ultimately will enhance the position with health and safety,” she said. “We are at the very beginning of what the possibilities are.”

However, one pitfall is not engaging workers, added Ms. Garner-Janna. “It’s critical that you engage the people who will be using this technology … if you don’t it won’t work.”