Thomas Negre, global director-gas detection and connected industrial worker at Honeywell Industrial Safety, explains why ‘connected safety’ is taking centre stage in today’s smart factories and is enhancing worker protection as well as productivity.
Safety may not be the first application that springs to mind whenever the concepts of industry 4.0 and smart factory are mentioned. Yet, even ‘low-tech’ personal protective equipment (PPE) is becoming more intelligent and connected.
Industry 4.0 is transforming the manufacturing sector. The so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is being driven by an unprecedented rise in data availability, computational power and connectivity, as well as new forms of human-machine interaction  that is helping industrial concerns make better decisions faster to reduce operational costs and increase efficiency and productivity. In other words, it’s about making factories smarter.
But Industry 4.0 is also happening in the industrial safety space, thanks to the latest advancements in connected safety technology. Enabling businesses to protect workers more effectively helps them achieve a competitive advantage by reducing many safety management-related costs.
The European Framework Directive on Safety and Health at Work (Directive 89/391 EEC) obliges employers to take appropriate preventive measures to make work safer and healthier, stressing the importance of new forms of safety and health management as part of general management processes . In the light of this – and growing awareness of the hefty fines and reputational damage that can derive from safety misconduct or simple neglect of regulatory requirements – many companies have, over the years, implemented databases to record and monitor their employees’ exposure levels and better manage and maintain the safety equipment they use. Yet, this has traditionally been – and continues to be – a paper-based process of manually inputting occupational safety and health data, despite the availability of software applications to simplify the task.
This piecemeal approach to safety can ultimately put workers at risk, especially in large factories, where the manual inputting of data becomes extremely difficult to manage. This makes it hard to ensure that PPE and other safety devices are properly maintained and ‘fit for purpose’, up-to-date and compliant and that workers are using them correctly. Moreover, with the frequent demand of having to do more with less and the increased job responsibilities put on today’s safety manager, PPE inspections may be limited to periodic factory audits or sample checks. It is also time consuming and costly, and can hamper productivity and expose companies to potential fines. For example, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can expect to pay up to £40,000 a year for health and safety compliance, but could end up with a fine averaging £115,000 if found guilty of a breach .
Clearly, this presents an opportunity to bring more automation to safety management compliance. Making safety equipment smarter is the key. By embedding personal protective equipment with sensors or radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology they become edge devices in the Internet of Things that can collect and transmit data – speeding up data gathering and improving accuracy and efficiency. In this data-gathering scheme, the mobile, connected worker serves as the hub of the design.
Bluetooth connectivity, for example, now enables a worker to automatically connect a portable gas detector or other device to their smartphone. Wireless connectivity combined with the latest software and cloud technology then enable the safety manager to immediately view, on their laptop or smartphone, which worker is using the device, assess whether they have the right training in the use of their safety equipment and that this equipment is up to date in terms of regulatory compliance, well-maintained and fit for purpose. The safety manager can access this information within seconds, in addition to obtaining a wealth of other data such as gas concentration values, number of safety incidents over a period of time, current instrument sensor health and functionality, to name a few. This kind of data is mission critical.
Automating safety compliance operations is not the only way in which connected safety technology can meet the challenges of today’s smart factories. From automotive to aerospace, the move towards connected safety is already a reality in many high-risk environments such as confined spaces and has shown how a data-driven approach can save lives.
From gas cabinets in a semiconductor plant to the wings of a Boeing 747, confined spaces are common across manufacturing and among the most hazardous environments for workers. Those who access such areas can be exposed to risks including oxygen deficiency (or, in some cases, oxygen enrichment), exposure to toxic or flammable gases, high noise levels and falls. Being able to monitor these workers’ biomedical values (heart rate, body temperature, breathing rate) as well as their exposure levels in real-time is paramount to alert workers about a potentially dangerous situation, and to guide emergency rescue operations if necessary. Knowing the exact gas concentration levels or the position of a worker who has lost consciousness before the rescuers step in is key to providing them with the right equipment for the hazards they have to face.
With connectivity now becoming more accessible and affordable, the connected safety infrastructure is expanding beyond high-risk environments and becoming part of the smart factory ecosystem. The smartphone, in particular, has become a versatile personal data-gathering and transmitting hub that is opening up unprecedented opportunities in the area of safety both in high-risk and low-risk environments. There are now multiple providers of industrial smartphones that offer the same ease-of-use as their consumer counterparts while meeting the rugged requirements of industrial environments. For example, people operating in explosive atmospheres can now use hazardous area-certified or intrinsically safe smartphones via a mobile network.
As mentioned, smartphones are now able connect to other devices such as gas detectors and even a worker who is not wearing a portable gas detector can be alerted if a gas leak is detected by a fixed device in a different part of the factory. A safety manager, from any location, can use a smartphone to access occupational safety and health data about a specific worker and intervene if, for example, they are not wearing hearing protection where it is required or not wearing it correctly. The latest industrial smartphone apps also offer functionalities such as on demand training with clear visual instructions and provide both the worker and safety manager with information on which gas detectors and personal protective equipment (PPE) are needed for that specific task.
The data is also stored so that safety managers can run reports on a population of workers, or an individual worker, and monitor their exposure to hazardous substances over time. This is key to tackling ill health before it’s too late, with data informing decisions about working patterns so that, for example, a worker’s exposure levels over a particular shift are reduced.
By enabling PPE and portable gas detectors to automatically communicate data directly to the control room, automated safety compliance and monitoring can enhance productivity in a number of ways. Firstly, workers don’t have to stop every few minutes to send the information such as gas readings back manually, thus reducing downtime. Secondly, workers can rest assured that the equipment they’re using is fit for purpose and that their exposure levels are being monitored closely so that they can focus more on the job in hand, thus improving overall productivity and efficiency. Research conducted by the Health and Safety Executive has also shown that investment in health and safety compliance results in better staff morale and motivation .
More importantly, by enabling safety managers to intervene immediately and prevent dangerous situations as well as long-term illnesses, connected safety technology can contribute to reducing the huge cost that can arise from absences from work. Last year 25.9 million working days were lost due to work-related illness, which cost the UK’s economy £9.3 billion , with a worker who is absent from work for more than seven days costing the employer £8000 on average . The connected worker is a healthier, safer, more productive worker.
Looking to the future, while the benefits of automating safety management processes are apparent, one challenge for the safety professionals of the smart factory will be how to manage growing volumes of data effectively. Traditionally, safety managers have ‘owned’ the entire safety equipment management process, from procurement to training and inspection. Increasingly, data-driven safety monitoring and compliance processes will perhaps require the involvement of a broader team, where safety professionals will be supported by IT and health specialists, resulting in a more comprehensive safety strategy. More generally, partnerships between different stakeholders, from manufacturers of PPE to software and telecommunications providers, will be key to developing a fully connected solution that will make smart factories of the future safer.
Safety is clearly moving away from its ‘analog’ past and embracing the digital age. It has a vital role to play in the transformation of factories in the industry 4.0 era. The ability to collect and analyse occupational safety and health data more effectively will not only ensure that smart factory workers are better protected but also enhance efficiency and productivity. Ultimately, the workers themselves expect the technology they are given at work to offer the same ease-of-use to what they’re using at home, which is exactly what connected safety can help them achieve.