More money than ever is being spent on workplace safety, yet injury rates have remained stagnant for years. Can connected safety and smart PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) really help us break through, or is it all just high-tech hype?
Ponder this: our human reality now involves a bluetooth toaster. For $100, you too can receive push notifications when your slice of bread reaches the desired level of toasted-ness. Yes, this is almost certainly the future Steve Jobs envisioned when introducing the iPhone as a “revolutionary and magical product”.
Welcome to the wonderful world of IoUT (Internet of Useless Things), people.
But among the $50 water bottles (that tell you when to refill them...yup, really) and $65 forks (that let you know if you’re eating too fast… seriously) there’s the IoAUT (Internet of Actually Useful Things). Smart thermostats. The ability to shut your garage door and turn lights off from another time zone. Remote healthcare monitoring and emergency notification systems. Truly good and useful and amazing stuff. And in the world of industrial safety, forward-thinking manufacturers are turning personal protective equipment into personal preventive equipment – giving workers the power to proactively address specific safety risks in real-time. Data that comes from embedded sensors in smart PPE is not only being used to improve individual safety, but also connecting that information to a greater platform in order to improve safety (and efficiency) for all.
‘THE NEXT LOGICAL STEP’
As employers continue to spend billions of dollars annually on worker safety programs, injury rates over the past several years have remained stagnant. That statistical plateau has leaders in the safety industry tapping into another resource to take worker safety to the next level: the workers themselves – connecting smart PPE to a platform focused on producing real-time data to and from workers on key safety categories like PPE management, risk management, safety communications and worker engagement.
“There’s a frustration that the spend on safety initiatives is no longer yielding the results that it had been for decades,” says Tom Votel, president & CEO, Ergodyne. Last year, the St. Paul-based safety work gear manufacturer announced its partnership with another Minnesota-based company, Corvex Connected Safety. “From our perspective, this is the next logical step in what has been a traditional, PPE-centered approach to safety.”
The Corvex Connected Safety platform aims to enable a proactive, risk-based approach to safety using leading indicators (as opposed to lagging, reactive indicators) to help companies best manage their resources and processes, without compromising efficiency or productivity. The end game: empowering workers to play a major role in ensuring a safe work environment for everyone.
“I think safety is a conversation between the worker and the employer,” says Votel, “and I believe partnerships like the one we have with Corvex are allowing safety to move more rapidly toward that state. More and more, people are understanding that workplace safety goes far beyond how much was spent on a pair of gloves. It’s about how we are driving compliance. Are we having the conversation with our workers and are workers actually engaged in the process to help us make safety better?”
“Safety happens in real time, and the data we use to prevent injuries should also be the same,” says Ted Smith, CEO of Corvex. “Advancements in sensor technologies and IoT ecosystems have opened the door to obtaining real-time data at the point of safety – the worker.”
Take your typical hi-vis vest. It reflects light and prevents struck-by accidents etc., but it’s inert. The idea with connected safety and smart PPE is taking that inert product and adding a “brain” to it, so that it can gather and share information. Feed all that info-rich data into a safety management software platform, and that’s where are all kinds of interesting things start happening.
A simple example of connected safety in action would be in the realm of heat stress. A smart hi-vis vest or work shelter could communicate all sorts of important information to a worker through a system-administered mobile device – notifying them of dangerous heat index levels or when it’s time to find a shady spot for a water break. With real-time alerts, visual information and communication, crews are armed with what they need to be smarter, safer and more productive while working in challenging environments.
“Once you understand the value of connecting to the worker, the sky's the limit, really,” explains Corvex founder Joe O’Brien. “What we’re doing (with Corvex Connected Safety) is creating a highway that some really exciting solutions can run on. We'll leave the real specific problem-solving matters to our product partners like Ergodyne.”
CONNECTED SAFETY, CONNECTED BUSINESS
From his experience, O’Brien sees the dotted line drawn from connected safety to very real bottom-line benefits. He describes a recent example where a worker noticed a leaning pallet of product in the middle of a warehouse aisle. Afraid it was a safety hazard, he took a picture and submitted it for review using his system’s personal mobile device. Not only did the safety manager come back and confirm its status as a safety risk, but the incident also engaged the quality manager who realized that the way they were stacking the product was causing scratches on the housing of the product.
Leveraging smart safety gear to accelerate meaningful communication between safety professionals and workers – and the time it takes to act upon it – means not only preventing injuries, but, from a very practical business sense, reducing costs, increasing productivity and worker-level investment in the company’s success as a whole.
“In its real world application, we start to link safety to other parts of the operation like efficiencies, quality and worker engagement,” continues O’Brien. “The worker in this example saw how his contribution impacted the business as a whole and became even more motivated to participate and engage.”
The current workplace safety transformation is as generational as it is technological. A transference of leadership is happening right now. “About 50% of the safety managers are going to be replaced in five years,” says Votel. “That’s really significant.”
Relating to this growing community of digitally native leaders and workers will be absolutely critical from a safety perspective. The good news? We have the technology to foster that relationship. “Of course, it’s up to us Baby Boomers to shepherd this generational/technological convergence,” continues Votel. “The next wave lives in the digital world. We need to make a commitment to help the future generation of leadership harness technology and advance the cause of safety.”
And in a tight labor market, younger workers undoubtedly will find this to be the more attractive and enabling approach compared to those organizations still cutting corners and digging their heels in against the approaching safety-tech tide. To Votel, a safer workplace is a competitive edge for attracting and keeping its people.
“It becomes bragging rights for employers,” he says. “That’s really healthy, positive, and frankly, it’s just smart.”
THE BIG BROTHER EFFECT
In a world where every move is caught on camera, recorded and tracked by GPS, there’s the obvious concern that “connected safety” is code for yet another Orwellian invasion of privacy, the newest unblinking eye of the surveillance state.
But to those like O’Brien, the power of the platform is the ownership it gives workers over their own safety and the voice given to those on the front lines, shifting the paradigm of top-down, management-driven programs. Though tracking elements do exist with smart PPE and industrial safety software platforms, advocates contend it’s as pro-worker and free of bureaucratic bottlenecks as a safety initiative can be.
“Our mantra is ‘worker powered’,” says O’Brien. “I haven’t encountered many folks who don’t want to be engaged in their own safety, and this certainly allows for that to a much higher degree than they’ve probably ever experienced. Once they get this tool in their hands, any mistrust that happens to exists at the onset goes away really quickly.”
At the same time, he argues, the C-Suite is put in a more favorable position as they’re armed with transparent, free-flowing data to evaluate and manage all kinds of risks that are really affected by workplace safety, like brand and financial risk.
THE REALITIES OF THE WORKPLACE
When it came to building out a sustainable connected safety environment, O’Brien, Smith and Votel were firm in their collective opinion that staying product agnostic was and is the smart choice. The reality of the work setting involves lots of different safety equipment, brands and manufacturers, not to mention personal preferences. Rarely does an EHS professional outfit their people with a single brand, head to toe. So, to them, an open platform that accepts them all and allows for virtually any product to be connected just makes sense.
“There are a lot of large companies in the safety space that sell multiple different products,” says Votel. “It’s only natural for them to put together a platform that revolves around their stuff and sells their stuff – I get that, and it might be successful to some degree. But a brand-specific, closed-platform is less grounded in the actualities of how most workplaces operate on a day-to-day basis.”
In other words, you can use that bluetooth toaster, but it only accepts one brand of frozen waffle.
“We’re still in the early stages, but working diligently on building connected intelligent safety solutions that are pretty exciting,” says Votel. “At the same time, we’re aware that this leap forward needs to be grounded in real world applications for us to truly push worker safety to the next level.”