The Future: How Safety Will Continue to Evolve

The Future: How Safety Will Continue to Evolve

Let’s take a look into the future of the industry.

Over the course of the year, the OH&S editorial team has looked back on the history of the occupational health and safety industry as a way to celebrate 90 years of bringing continued education and timely information to safety professionals. We touched on the storied past of safety, including fall protection, hand protection, respiratory protection, industrial hygiene and more, but now it is time to discuss the future.

In our last article celebrating the 90th anniversary of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, we are going to touch on the future of safety. In a way, we have already arrived in the future of safety when you look at the implementation of technology on worksites around the country, but there are so many other ways safety will evolve over the course of the next few decades. Let’s break each of these down.

Technology Brings Enhanced Insights

It doesn’t matter what industry you are part of, the evolution and enhancements in technology will always be part of the larger conversation when discussing the future. Specific to the safety and health industry, technology has always played a large part in ensuring goals are met, data is captured and records and log books are kept up to date.

In the future, I think we will see even more technology layered into worksites to aid in preventing incidents. Let’s take a look at three areas of safety technology that could be utilized in the future.

Data Capture and Analysis. While capturing data for enhanced insights is not new to the industry, the ability to capture enormous amounts of high-quality data, analyze it and predict room for improvement at facilities will be critical in the future. As high production outputs become necessary to maintain everyday life for consumers around the world, understanding fast paced environments and the associated risks in real time could help to reduce occupational injuries and fatalities.

With the introduction of artificial intelligence and machine learning, large amounts of data from inputs such as video feeds, smart metering, telemetry, personal monitoring devices and smartphones will be processed at a rate unintelligible to our average workforce. Taking advantage of these insights can help safety directors and facility owners better predict, identify and correct problems before they turn into costly injuries, traumatic fatalities or have large impacts on communities and environments.

Wearables. Similarly to how wearables and connected devices are taking up every space in your personal life, they will soon be doing the same in your professional career. While there are many companies already producing wearable devices to improve worker health and safety, the worksites around the country have been slow to adopt.

In the future, it will be commonplace for workers to be digitally connected to safety directors in virtually every way. For instance, outdoor workers may have their heart rates and temperatures monitored through a device that can report the symptoms of heat illness before it occurs while reporting the exact location of that worker should they need emergency services.

Personal protective equipment with built in smart technology will also become a common occurrence as well. We’ve already seen the latest technology included in exoskeletons to reduce musculoskeletal disorders, we’ve seen devices layered into hard hats for more rapid communication and even protective clothing embedded with tech that can monitor the elements around the worker.

Robotics. We cannot talk about safety without conferring with the Hierarchy of Controls, which first asks safety professionals to do what they can to eliminate hazards first to reduce the risk of injury and illness. A popular way of eliminating risks is to find a way to automate a process without having a worker there to suffer injuries.

While it sounds like the addition of automation and robotics may be a scary idea for the future of work, it isn’t all bad. The more technology you bring into a workspace, the more training and oversight that technology needs. A human element will always be necessary for technology to achieve its full potential and leaps forward in tech do not mean a reduction in staff, OSH and otherwise.

ESG and DEI Become Priorities

If you haven’t heard of ESG or DEI, you’ll need to brush up on your acronyms because you’ll be hearing them a lot in the future. As we continue to see the workforce shift to become younger, the priorities of the employee will change. The younger generations, such as Millennials and Gen Z, will want to work for companies that prioritize Environmental, Sustainability and Governance (ESG) and Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI). Let’s define each of these.

Environmental, Sustainability and Governance. According to the Corporate Finance Institute, ESG is a framework designed to be integrated into an organization’s strategy. It takes a holistic view that sustainability extends beyond just environmental issues but also social (fair wages, employee engagement) and governance (company leadership and management).

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. DEI is any policy or practice that is designed to make employees of various backgrounds feel welcome and ensure they have support to perform their duties at the fullest of their ability. Diversity refers to the presence of differences within a given setting, including race, ethnicity, gender, age and socioeconomic background. Equity is the act of ensuring all processes and programs are impartial, fair and provide equal possible outcomes for everyone. Finally, inclusion is the practice of making people feel a sense of belonging at work.

While ESG and DEI are very different, they both serve to reach a similar goal, which is to create a more morally conscious company overall. Where safety is concerned, EHS and OSH professionals will need to be more conscious of the kinds of PPE they are purchasing (Can it be recycled? How long will it take to break down in a landfill?), the way that safety programs are created and communicated (Are you reaching out to employees in their native language? Are you asking for program feedback from multiple employees with different backgrounds?) and managing and leading a team with transparency and accountability at the forefront.

Safety for the Whole Worker

Finally, one of the biggest trends that will be seen in the future of occupational health and safety will be looking to approach safety with the whole worker in mind, from head to toe. And no, I don’t mean from safety helmet to steel toe boot.

Much research has been done to show the relation of work and non-work conditions and how that can impact the overall health of an employee. Turns out, the situations and stressors that are happening at home don’t just disappear when someone steps foot in their workspace. Sometimes employees are distracted, fatigued or even dealing with mental health issues that can put them at a higher risk of injury and illness when they are performing their job responsibilities.

In the future, we will see a lot more effort going into ensuring a worker is healthy and safe in all aspects of their life as this will ultimately result in that person being safer at work. We are already seeing this approach become popular with the inception of the Total Worker Health program from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This program is defined as an approach to worker safety and health that integrates protection from work-related hazards with the ability to improve the well-being of the U.S. workforce.

NIOSH’s research shows that when OSH professionals implement safety and health programs that go beyond traditional safety, the health of the workforce improves benefitting more than just the employee, but also the stakeholders, the employees’ families and the community. When safety programs consider the entire human and all the complexities that come with living, and working, in the modern age, you can only begin to create more efficient safety programs.

You Are the Future of Safety

While the future of safety may include advanced technology, machine learning, artificial intelligence and more, it won’t be possible without you. You, the professionals that work day in and day out to improve their safety and health programs and reduce risk, are the ones that will dictate how the industry moves forward. It is up to you to carry the torch to the next generation, handing down your wisdom, experiences and lessons learned for a brighter (and safer) future for all.

This article originally appeared in the December 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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