As New York City hip hop group Non Phixion boldly proclaimed in their 2002 debut album: The Future Is Now. From drone fleets and autonomous transportation systems to smart homes with computer-controlled lighting, heating, media and security systems, a new group of highly-automated technologies is gripping the popular imagination. These technologies – known collectively as the Internet of Things (IoT) – form advanced ecosystems of interrelated devices with the capacity to monitor, detect, communicate and act on the real world independently of human intervention. Promising to fulfil all of our wildest technological dreams and needs, the IoT age has arrived – and it looks like its here to stay.
While the consumer applications of IoT tend to receive the most attention, one area that is seeing strong growth in the uptake of IoT devices is workplace safety. Workplace safety costs businesses billions every year, and industries with especially hazardous working environments – Construction, Oil & Gas, Mining, Utilities, Rail, etc. – are beginning to adopt IoT technology to help minimise risk and address preventable threats. Before exploring these IoT solutions, however, let us first consider some of the key threats faced by workers in these industries.
Construction is one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, accounting for 1 in 5 worker deaths in the US and incurring tens of thousands of short and long-term injuries each year. In construction, the major risk is falling from a height, which accounts of 26 per cent of fatal injuries in the workplace. Additional risks come from being struck by vehicles and heavy moving objects, proximity to overhead/underground high voltage power lines, confined spaces, high noise environments, and exposure to dust and fumes.
In underground mining operations, hazards include respiratory health problems
In Mining & Quarrying, sustained overexertion is the most common threat to workplace safety, accounting for 24 per cent of nonfatal injuries. In surface mining operations, specifically, the leading hazards come from geological instability (i.e. falling rocks), blast debris and collisions with large and heavy plant equipment. In underground mining operations, hazards include respiratory health problems (e.g. Black Lung), explosions and gas leaks (particularly in coal mines), heat stress, confined spaces and ionising radiation.
Other industries are often faced with some combination of the above, or similar, threats. In the Rail sector, for instance, there is high risk from collisions with vehicles, objects and machinery and vulnerability to electric shock. In Utilities, the number one risk is slips, trips and falls, accounting for 30 per cent of Lost Workday Injuries (LWIs) in 2016. And in Oil & Gas extraction, exposure to flammable gas, chemical emissions and oxygen-deficient atmospheres creates vulnerability to explosions and chemical poisoning.
Tackling threats in a high-tech world
What, then, is being done to tackle these threats? In a high-tech world, many safety measures currently in use – hardhats, earplugs, gloves, gas masks, guardrails, harnesses, protective goggles and high visibility clothing – appear decidedly primitive. Therefore, whilst these measures are still useful in minimising risk, companies have started to integrate IoT technologies to enhance their application. These technologies bring together real-time analytics, machine learning, advanced sensors and embedded systems to offer a number of key functionalities:
- Physiological monitoring
Wearable technology is used to monitor a worker’s physiological state in real-time. Japanese wearable tech company Mitsufuji is active in this space, creating smart clothes woven from silver-metallised fibres that collect a range of data about its wearer, including heart rate and body temperature. Other examples include wristbands with bio-sensors to accurately measure stress levels and glasses that detect eye movements to identify fatigue and periods of micro-sleep.
- Environmental monitoring
Sensors used to measure temperature, radiation, gas leaks, carbon monoxide and other harmful chemicals can automatically alert workers to unsafe external conditions. Additionally, visual imaging software can map 3D representations of a worker’s environment, facilitating effective two-way communication between supervisors and personnel in the field, and remote guidance technologies provide live assistance to workers caught in serious danger (e.g. guide a miner trapped in a tunnel to the best way out).
- Situational awareness, training and behavioural data
Augmented Reality (AR) technologies offer new ways to support decision making in the field by providing holographic representations of physical equipment, while Virtual Reality (VR) technologies offer immersive situational training without the risks associated with real-life procedures. These technologies also offer up valuable behavioural data, which can be used to gauge a worker’s risk tolerance level and tendency to respond to danger.
- Proximity detection
Proximity detection systems utilise wearable sensors to monitor workers’ location, map their movements, and alert them to nearby hazards. One example of this are radio-frequency identification (RFIDs), which can measure a worker’s proximity to moving equipment and alert them to possible collisions and near misses. Another piece of kit is the ‘smart helmet’, which can immediately detect an accident, determine the worker’s location and send an alert containing coordinates to a safety control centre. The centre is able to make video and audio contact and communicate with the worker until help arrives.
Exoskeletons can assist with heavy lifting and the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) by analysing worker movements and providing the necessary support. The Chairless Chair, for example, used by factory floor workers, fixes around the back and legs to provide support whenever the worker sits or crouches. Exoskeletons are also used to monitor worker movements, identifying repetitive movements and sustained periods of overexertion.
IoT technologies and innovations
IoT innovations are helping to improve workplace safety on multiple fronts
Taken together, these IoT innovations are helping to improve workplace safety on multiple fronts. Firstly, they are preventative. By closely monitoring one’s environment – both internal and external – IoT technologies can pre-empt and alert workers to potential dangers. Secondly, they are responsive. In the case of an accident, IoT technologies can alert supervisors and help coordinate a quick and effective response. Thirdly, they are informative. By accumulating and analysing rich pools of data, IoT technologies can help optimise work in the field and find improved ways to limit risk.
While IoT certainly cannot eliminate all risk from the workplace – it cannot prevent rocks falling in quarries, explosions on oil rigs or gas leaks in mines – it can go a long way to make these environments safer and better places to work. Because when it comes down to it, workplace safety is certainly no accident!