How next-gen technologies make workplaces safer


As technological breakthroughs continue to enable new business models and disrupt entire industries, twenty-first century tools are also exerting a profound influence on how enterprises seek to keep workers safe as they perform potentially dangerous tasks. Robotics, the Internet of Things and virtual reality all provide innovative ways to safeguard employees’ health and safety, often in combination with artificial intelligence capabilities.

Robots Doing Dangerous Work

Among all workplaces, manufacturing environments still have among the highest rates of injury to workers, from slips and falls and lifting-related accidents to traumatic contact with heavy equipment. Robotic devices that perform routine tasks can improve safety simply by enabling workers to avoid being physically present on the assembly line or factory floor where they might receive cuts, tear muscles or be exposed to chemical spills. In the automobile industry, workers can complete more strategic, less risky tasks while robotic arms take care of routinized but potentially dangerous vehicle-manufacturing procedures including spotwelding and the application of powerful glues. Using robots to reduce “human error” from manufacturing processes can eradicate dangers not just to the worker who made the mistake but to coworkers, too.

Safety advantages like these help explain why there are currently about 250,000 robots in industrial use in the United States alone. In some cases, however, the integration of robots with humans in a given work scenario may actually create or intensify risk of worker injury or death, even when the robots are walled off in special enclosures. And while robots bring raw strength and endurance that human beings can’t match, it’s still true that sentient creatures are better at motivating teams with inspiration and encouragement and coming up with creative solutions to problems on the fly.

Sensors Fueling Machine Learning

By allowing people and machines to interact in straightforward ways, the Internet of Things (IoT) brings vast potential to transform workplace safety for the better. Sensors can help prevent workers from being injured by trucks and forklifts as they send alerts or cause brakes to be applied automatically. Together with machine learning, IoT capabilities are enabling one of the most dangerous global industries — building and construction — to more accurately predict when heavy equipment needs maintenance for safety reasons. Intelligent agents can “see” what human workers can’t, flagging deteriorating or abnormal performance by assessing sensor data and comparing it with optimum measures in time to eliminate breakdowns and hazardous situations.

These technologies can help enterprises determine which workers at a construction site are using machinery ineptly or recklessly (for example, by starting and stopping trucks with poor control), enabling them to be re-trained before they injure themselves or coworkers near them. Such systems may prove useful in other industries as well. For example, Microsoft’s artificial intelligence system for workplace safety, a blend of Microsoft Azure, Microsoft Cognitive Services and cameras, could conceivably function well in almost any type of workplace where monitoring and notification are feasible, not just in construction zones. And self-driving vehicles such as the Tesla Semi electric truck with autopilot may help companies reduce injuries by making trucking fleet operations more consistent.

Virtual Reality That Removes Risk

One of the clearest ways in which virtual reality (VR) can improve workplace safety is by allowing workers to experience hands-on, highly realistic training while being completely insulated from potentially dangerous situations. If a trainee makes a serious mistake in the virtual world, he or she has learned what may be a life-saving lesson without suffering any health consequences. In addition, the telecommunications company Orange Silicon Valley provides annual fire emergency training to its workers using a VR experience that simulates what it is like to move around several of the company’s office floors. The three-dimensional virtual world incorporating workspaces that are already familiar to employees enables the company to increase the percentage of workers who complete critically important training; it also communicates complex details of building floor plans and escape routes more effectively than lengthy training manuals can.

Enterprises that are considering the use of next-gen technologies to improve workplace safety may choose to think about these issues and trade-offs as they analyze options:

  • What’s the best way to leverage technologies to improve safety while minimizing the risks introduced by the technologies themselves, so that the work environment becomes safer overall?
  • Could any of our processes benefit from hybrid or collaborative robotic systems that partially automate tasks while continuing to incorporate inputs that only human beings can provide?
  • Even if we don’t need the traditional kind of industrial robot that performs a manufacturing task, would our workplace gain in efficiency and productivity through the use of professional service robots or mobile robots?
  • With IoT creating new possibilities for greater workplace safety seemingly every day, how will our organization keep up with the accelerated pace of innovation?
  • What is our plan for funding potentially expensive VR training content and for ensuring that users won’t be subjected to motion sickness and other health effects?

In our own enterprise, DXC works to meet rigorous safety standards through the use of a state-of-the-art incident tracking system
that streamlines actions, workflows, investigations and findings for any type of incident or event. By harnessing technology to instill the maximum precision and quality into our processes, we strive to build futuristic office environments — the kinds of people-first workplaces where safety and innovation fully align.

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