The Technology-Enabled Future of EHS
Since technology evolves quickly, this is a good time to look at the other ways in which technology will change EHS. Rather than using buzzwords, or writing yet another article about a specific technology, we will share with you specific applications in EHS that have been talked about. Therefore you will already have a look into the technology-enabled future of EHS. The post is divided by technology area and includes examples of applications and links to articles.
Wearable computers, or body-borne computers or wearables, are miniature electronic devices that are worn by users. Smartwatches and fitbit devices are the best known wearables. Let’s look at a few applications of wearables in EHS.
Smartwatches for Incident Reporting. A worker enters a near miss or an incident using an smartwatch, for example the Apple Watch, through speech recognition.
Smart Glasses. Many applications are available through smart glasses, and which have been mentioned frequently: 1) Having a list of work instructions displayed to make sure that tasks are performed safely using both hands; 2) Recording a video of a hazardous condition that can lead to an incident; 3) Capturing a live video of a near miss or incident as it’s taking place, and using the video during the incident investigation.
Health-Monitoring Wearables. Wearables (belt, wrist band, etc.) monitor a worker’s vital signs (blood rate, temperature, blood pressure, breathing, etc.). If there is something abnormal, an alert is sent to the worker and/or his supervisor indicating that the worker may be under strain, which could increase the risk of incidents. As a result, the worker stops his activity.
Environment-Monitoring Wearables. Another similar application is where the wearable alerts the worker if he has a high exposure to hazardous chemicals, is exposed to toxic gases, or is exposed to unsafe noise levels.
For more on what is being developed regarding wearables in safety and health, read the Worker Safety Intelligence at the Edge article in EHS Today. The LNS Research article 4 Ways Wearable Tech Will Transform EHS Dynamics provides a couple of other interesting applications also.
Internet of Things (IoT)
The IoT is the internetworking of physical devices, vehicles, connected devices, smart devices, buildings and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors and network connectivity that enable these objects to collect and exchange data.
Some scenarios make use of both wearables and the IoT, or beacons/sensors and the IoT. Therefore some items in this post under other sections could also have been placed in this section.
Let’s look at a few applications of the IoT in EHS, as highlighted by David Metcalfe from Verdantix in an Environmental Leader article.
Emissions Monitoring. Sensors monitor air emissions, collect data and send it over the Internet. The data can be used for reports, or to measure the environmental footprint of an enterprise throughout all facilities.
Water Management. According to Metcalfe, smart sensors that capture data will be used more often in water management, as opposed to water meters, because, as water becomes an increasingly scarce resource, there will be a greater need to monitor water in the natural environment.
Grid-Based Data Collection on Chemical Spills. Geographic information systems using grid-based data collections are also seeing progress. Collecting data using grids is less time-consuming than collecting data manually, Metcalfe says. For example, during a chemical spill, the areas where a chemical spill has occurred and that require an immediate cleanup response can be identified visually and more effectively.
A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that may operate either under remote control by a human operator, or fully or occasionally autonomously by onboard computers. Let’s look at a couple of applications of drones in EHS.
Inspections. An EHS Daily Advisor article provides the following scenarios where drones can be used to inspect and identify problems, instead of putting human workers at risk during inspections:
- The communication tower industry increasingly uses drones to inspect towers and antennas.
- In the oil and gas industry, drones can inspect flare stack heads, and detect and locate leaks.
- An engineering and construction firm in the U.K. has begun using drones to perform roadway inspections.
- Drones could be used to identify problems in enclosed areas, for example in sewers, before workers are sent into a potentially hazardous situation.
In addition to the scenarios above, another application would consist of using drones to monitor and inspect vast networks composed of thousands of kilometers of pipelines in the oil and gas industry.
Work at Elevation. The EHS Daily Advisor article also raises the possibility that drones could eventually be designed to perform the same work that robots currently do, but at elevation (e.g. welding, drilling), thus reducing the need to expose workers to fall hazards.
Beacons and Sensors
Beacons are devices that broadcast their identifier to nearby portable electronic devices. The technology enables smartphones, tablets and other devices to perform actions when in close proximity to a beacon. “iBeacon” is the protocol developed by Apple and is widely supported.
Sensors are objects that detect events or changes in their environment, and then provide a corresponding output. A sensor is a type of transducer.
There are many applications of beacons and sensors in EHS, but we will only highlight the ones mentioned frequently.
PPE Alerts. For example, a worker walks into an area of a facility where work is being done that releases dust particles. A mobile device carried by the worker picks up the signal from a beacon. As a result of that particular signal, the worker receives an alert or reminder on the same mobile device asking him to make sure he is wearing a specific personal protective equipment (PPE) (e.g. mask or respirator).
Detection of Chemical Spills or Releases. Sensors detect that a chemical spill or release has taken place. As a result, an alert in real-time in sent to mobile devices carried by workers, warning them to stay away from that area to avoid chemical exposure.
Equipment or Asset Performance. Sensors send real-time data on the performance of an equipment or asset. If the equipment malfunctions, or is about to malfunction, it may increase the risk of incidents for people operating the equipment, or working in its proximity. Therefore a real-time alert is sent to warn workers. LNS Research has written a lot about this and the link between Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) and EHS.
Augmented Reality (AR)
AR is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. The Pokémon Go app is a good example of the use of AR. A Verdantix article gives three potential applications of AR in EHS.
Smart Safety Glasses. An employee wears “smart safety glasses” to view real-time environmental information such as airborne chemical and particulate concentrations, or oxygen levels in a confined space.
Virtual SDSs. A worker scans a chemical storage area with a smartphone’s camera and the screen gets populated with virtual Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) above each chemical for convenient access to safety information.
Smart Helmets. This is basically an advanced hardhat that includes a retractable visor capable of overlaying work instructions, system performance metrics, and temperature readings on the user’s field of view.
Virtual Reality (VR)
VR refers to technologies that use software to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that replicate a real environment, and simulate a user’s physical presence in this environment by enabling the user to interact with this space and depicted objects.
Scenario-Based Safety Training. It’s the current flagship for the use of VR in EHS, Verdantix says. Instead of using classroom training, pictures and video to educate workers about a hazardous environment, VR allows full immersion into the environment without having to leave the room. According to Verdantix, having “real” experience before being actually exposed to a hazard is invaluable, and could reduce unsafe behaviors, incidents, injuries and fatalities.
At Enablon, we’re closely following these trends regarding technology in EHS, and have even provided demos of some of these scenarios at our SPF events. We’re taking into account future trends especially by evolving our mobile solutions to address needs that will be mainstream in the near future, in addition to addressing today’s needs. When considering an EHS software solution, be sure to look beyond point solutions or disjointed applications that only meet current needs. Rather, look for an integrated enterprise platform for EHS, Risk Management, and Sustainability, that takes into account the impacts of the future technology landscape on EHS and business operations.
Mobility can be a powerful tool in the right hands. Download Aberdeen’s “Improve Safety, Accuracy and Productivity with Mobility” report to understand the concept of mobility and identify additional benefits that extend beyond safety.