While accident rates are much lower today than they were 20 or 30 years ago, the rate of decline has now flatlined. We could accept this as being the new reality, but that would also mean accepting that people will die and become seriously injured at work in the coming 12 months.
Of course, for any health and safety professional, that is unconscionable. One death is one death too many, and one serious injury is one serious injury too many.
This means we must constantly work to improve, but we can’t do that by simply doing things the way we have always done them while hoping for a different outcome. Instead, we need innovation.
In other words, we need new ideas and thinking that produces new products, tools, and processes to give the health and safety industry – as well as accident rate statistics – an irreversible jolt.
We also need innovation to get new people into the health and safety industry (it is very white, male, and over-45 at the moment) and to change the industry’s image (which most health and safety professionals believe to be very bad).
Is there innovation happening at the moment? Also, where will the innovations of the future come from?
Is There Innovation in Health and Safety Now?
Many people believe there is innovation in health and safety at the moment. Safety Differently and lone worker devices are two examples.
Taking a Different Approach to Health and Safety with Safety Differently
Safety Differently is a concept that turns a lot of widely accepted norms in the health and safety industry on their head.
This includes the fact that proponents of Safety Differently say celebrating accident-free days gives companies a false sense of achievement. This is because it is impossible to say that preventing minor accidents eliminates major ones. The logical conclusion is to accept minor accidents will happen while working to eliminate the major incidents, i.e. accidents that cause fatalities and/or serious injuries.
Following on from this, Safety Different also says companies should define success in positive terms, i.e. being able to work without a serious accident in a wide range of conditions and environments.
Finally, Safety Differently also argues for empowering workers rather than having centrally designed and controlled health and safety procedures.
This is certainly innovative thinking, but is it at the level of innovation needed to inspire new people into the profession, change the image of health and safety, and give accident rates the downward jolt they so badly need?
The answer to this is probably no, not least because there is no data that proves Safety Differently works. Safety Differently may play a role, but the industry needs innovation on a much higher level.
Lone Worker Devices – Technology That Has Change Some Jobs Forever
Another example of innovation in health and safety is the introduction of lone worker devices. They are a disruptive technology as they offer companies a completely new way of reducing risks and ensuring employees have more protection.
Again, though, lone worker devices are not on the scale of innovation the health and safety industry currently requires.
Where Will the Innovations of the Future Come From?
While there is innovation in health and safety now, the real changes and positive impacts on workers will come in the future.
Those innovations will have three main drivers – one major one and two others that will also be important. Spoiler alert: while regulations are important and have helped drive down accident rates in the past, “new regulations” will not be one of the drivers of future innovation in the industry.
Health and Safety Innovation Will Come from Technology
The biggest driver of change in the health and safety industry will be the introduction of new technologies. You can break these new technologies into two different categories
Efficiency technologies – these are technologies that make it easier to implement health and safety procedures. This includes technologies such as e-permits, augmented reality, and e-learning. These are things where it is possible for a health and safety professional to develop a business case, i.e. to say it will cost X to implement this new technology and this will save us Y over a certain period of time while also improving ABC.
Disruptive technologies – these are technologies that change the way we do things. There are some examples that exist today. Cobots are one. Cobots are robots that don’t require a safety cage enabling people to safely work alongside them. So, for example, a cobot could hand an item to a person who works on it before handing it to another cobot. Another example of a disruptive technology currently in use is sensors. Sensors can do a number of different things, including predicting when a machine or vehicle will break down, scheduling maintenance before this occurs and, potentially, preventing an accident.
Following on from the point above, we do have disruptive technologies available to us today, but there is a lot more to come. Industry 4.0 and the smart factory, for example, will change manufacturing facilities forever. This will, in the process, improve the safety of workers. Automating processes that are currently done by people and that carry a high level of risk is one way this will happen.
Artificial intelligence is another technology that is in its infancy, but which will also change the health and safety industry. Big data and predictive analytics are also examples.
Many of these technologies are likely to come from tech companies rather than from within the health and safety industry. This means they are likely to be commercially driven.
However, the disruptive potential and positive impact that technology can and will have on health and safety cannot be understated.
So, technology will be the main driver for innovation in health and safety, but what about the other two drivers alluded to above. They relate to expectations – the expectations of workers and the expectations of consumers.
Workers increasingly demand their employers take steps to help them achieve a better work-life balance. This doesn’t happen in all industries, of course, but where it does there is a positive impact on health and safety. For example, workers are more motivated, they are more alert, and they take more care in their work when they have a good work-life balance.
Consumers are also becoming more demanding of the companies that serve them. In other words, the collective voice of consumers can change a company’s commercial direction.
For an example of this, look at the use of plastics in food packaging. The impact of this on the world’s oceans became mainstream because of the television programme Blue Planet 2. The public was enraged. The Government jumped on the bandwagon and began the process of introducing laws to reduce the use of plastics.
The Government is behind on this, however, as consumer power alone led supermarkets to make commitments of their own. The supermarkets did this because they saw where consumer opinion lay, so took commercial decisions to reduce their use of plastic.
This consumer power is likely to drive changes in health and safety in the future too.
New People, New Thinking, New Outcomes
Innovation is happening in health and safety, but it is on a small scale. Over the coming years and decades, technology and the introduction of new people with fresh ideas will change this.