When talking about digitization and security, most people instinctively think of data protection and IT security – this is understandable, but more and more comprehensively networked computer systems mean more attack space for hackers. Overshadowed by this important topic in the media, however, enormous changes are also emerging in occupational safety and risk management.

Digital transformation is not just for electronic innovation. Tangible changes in the country’s factory halls, in production processes, environmental protection, transport and more are also the direct consequence of the ubiquitous modernisation. These innovations have a direct, physical impact on the safety and health of workers, customers, and the facilities and environments of companies.

It is therefore not surprising that the traditional occupational safety departments are also intensively involved with digitalization, implement new technologies and analyse changes critically and predictively. The big challenge here is to ensure a risky and smooth operation without hindering the enormous potential of digital transformation or slowing down its implementation.

New technologies and their effects

Numerous new devices and concepts determine our everyday digital life. In addition to physical technologies, this includes software or socio-cultural aspects that are far from tangible. Nor are these changes limited to our workplace. On the contrary, the ubiquity of digitalization is what makes it so effective.

Occupational safety is extensively affected under these circumstances, because – if you want to take it exactly – it is influenced by almost every change. For example, the effects of smartphones acting on the human brain like heroin can be counted among the dangers of operational risk management. Because safety at work could suffer from reduced attention spans and emotional imbalance.

However, adapting to such extremely detailed threats would quickly be disproportionate in the face of more pressing problems. As in previous decades, occupational safety efforts in times of digitalisation are therefore always a question of prioritizing risks.

This simple insight brings a certain consistency into the field and often allows a calm, structured approach. This can be in stark contrast to other departments that are facing difficult times as a driving force or a plaything of digitization. Nevertheless, some specific technologies which can have a significant impact on occupational safety should be mentioned here.

Internet of Things

The networking of systems, devices, sensors, etc. and automated data exchange are known as the Internet of Things as part of digitalisation. The goal of such efforts can be quite different: from the automation of lighting and heating of a residential building to the data exchange of vehicle components to reduce the fuel consumption of a car, to automated production plants that independently optimize output or calculate the best time for maintenance.

The IoT primarily means major improvements in occupational safety, as intelligent sensors and devices can react to potentially dangerous changes at lightning speed and fully automatically. Since the Internet of Things also means networking components that were not part of a network in the past – or often not even electrical – the controllability, reach, and usefulness of such digital systems is increasing. Simply put, digitization makes areas of measurement and control that often worked purely mechanically in the past.

However, the “docking” of new areas and the start-up phase of such systems also pose some dangers. Especially when larger parts of a company are converted into an IoT concept, problems often appear at the beginning. A learning period for the new system can be useful for large change projects. Close monitoring by employees and the predecessor system is therefore common practice.

These difficulties have made soft migrations popular, with systems docked piece by piece (device by device). The IoT concept gradually replaces its technical predecessor. While this method has its own pitfalls, it also offers attractive advantages for many companies, which is why an examination in the context of digitalization efforts is recommended.

With the sensors now available and large amounts of data, it is not only possible to optimize productivity; security measures can also be monitored much better. Such hazards can be automatically detected and communicated in fractions of a second – speeds at which human monitoring cannot keep up.

Wearables

Wearables are digital devices that can be worn on the body. Smart watches and fitness trackers are by far among the most popular devices. The use of glasses with augmented reality features also received some attention, but was tarnished by the failure of the initial Google Glasses.

In industry in particular, intelligent glasses, which are otherwise not received much attention, are increasingly being used. For example, you can use a camera to analyze a technician’s field of view and mark and animate the machine components to be machined on the lens. With similar methods, ideal routes are already marked in warehousing and the storage or withdrawal of goods is automatically recorded.

Smart glasses have considerable potential to minimize security risks in everyday work through their real-time analyses. For example, new employees can benefit from the appropriately displayed hints – and long-standing colleagues can also be reminded of regulations and guidelines. Security risks can be recorded and transferred to central data processing without the intervention of the institution. While countermeasures are devised in the control center, the employee receives direct instructions for dealing with the respective problem.

While the glasses were primarily designed to increase productivity and job quality, they also offer interesting side effects for occupational safety. Like all wearables, tracking can also determine an employee’s exact location to create accurate movement patterns. This data can contribute to accident prevention, especially in high-risk environments. A correspondingly fast data connection (5G is a frequently mentioned system in this context) could be provided, for example, highly qualified experts could be called in, who could accompany technical maintenance work on the basis of the transmitted camera image. Points in the field of view of the on-site team can be marked to provide additional clarity.

Other devices, such as smart helmets or the already mentioned smart watches, can also be used with great success in the professional environment. For example, they enable communication with other workers or the headquarters of a plant. This communication also includes the sensors, which are available especially through increasingly common Internet of Things systems. Such a system can intelligently control an employee through the factory hall, obtain and pass on data on potential sources of danger in real time, and thus adjust running paths in the best possible way.

Big Data and Predictive Analytics

With the large amount of data that is suddenly available to us, as well as the new technologies in the processing of the same, there are now unprecedented possibilities. utilizations, demand, the best maintenance time (Predictive Maintenance) and much more can be accurately predicted thanks to big data.

These significantly improved analysis possibilities allow for better utilization of machines, plants and buildings. Avoiding rush hours, during which it can be particularly stressful, also reduces the risk of accidents. The data-driven work processes create a smoother, more balanced process, which is an important, passive factor for increased security.

This is not just about physical dangers or damage to equipment. With the meeting of intelligent predictions as part of predictive analytics applications and the associated improvements in everyday work, the psychological stress and stress of employees is also reduced. With 143 million job losses per year, migraine is the most common cause of sick leave. As a particularly stress-dependent disease, an improved working environment means less illness and a higher working and quality of life of those affected. Not to mention the reduced losses for companies.

Similar images are also found for other typical occupational diseases. Big data and the predictions that can be made are effective ways of at least partially compensating for these problems. However, this technology can also avoid direct danger situations.

Based on historical data and with sufficient measuring points, almost all events can be predicted. This can affect both the condition of a device and any sources of danger. The use of the collected information for the calculation of particularly questionable activities or areas is particularly worthwhile. The causes of past accidents can, if known, be transmitted by artificial intelligence into different scenarios – which can then of course be avoided. The ability to gain new insights from the available data and use them to create a less dangerous work environment is therefore the greatest advantage of AI use.

Necessary prerequisites

In order to benefit from the numerous advantages of digitalisation for occupational safety, some basic prerequisites are necessary. This includes, on the one hand, the widest possible availability of the corresponding systems and technologies.

An Internet of Things concept that connects a single warehouse, office or department can also be used with some success; However, those who want to experience tangible effects for the security of the company should rely on comprehensive solutions right from the start. Only with increasing range, higher degree of networking, more sensors, more extensive AI use, etc. will occupational safety benefit from the new measures.

This applies in the same way to the use of wearables as for predictive maintenance, predictive analytics and other methods. The higher the share of technology in a company, the more benefits can be gained from improved networking and automated communication – occupational safety is no exception.

Data protection and IT security must operate at a correspondingly high level in order to provide a reliable basis for occupational safety measures. In some cases, even structures can be observed in which these tasks are combined with occupational safety or are set up in interdisciplinary teams.

However, as the majority of companies continue to focus on these topics in the areas of IT infrastructure, hosting and operations and/or legal matters, the basics of data security in times of digital transformation are not discussed here.

However, in particular in matters of the safety of workers and installations alike, a particular basic confidence in the underlying technology is needed. Higher expenditureon tests and care are therefore often the norm in order to guarantee the appropriate degree of maturity that should be given in this area. Saving on the safety of workers is always the wrong way to go.

Conclusion

Compared to other departments, occupational safety is characterised by a very “hands-on” application of new technologies and digitalisation in general. New devices are used in series to ensure increased safety standards. This often makes the digital transformation more predictable and feasible. While other areas of a company often benefit more from improvements in software, working methods or culture (and these of course also have a significant impact on occupational safety), the purchase of new sensors or wearables can already solve a large number of previous safety hazards.

In addition, the security field is a major beneficiary of technologies and concepts originally introduced for other tasks. This passive use requires a lot of creativity – but allows the use of considerable synergy effects.

Since the high number of changes that are taking place in the context of the digital transformation in companies almost always have an impact on security, a lot of energy and attention will be needed here in the coming years. The sector is therefore not only subject to a general change, but will also play a more important role in most firms.