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Fueling the Evolution of Post-COVID Manufacturing Workplaces

With the world slowly recovering from the pandemic, digital technologies can help manufacturers prioritize employee health and safety in the ‘new’ workplace.    

Until a year ago, words such as lockdown, quarantine, and social distancing sat quietly in the dictionary. While a few elements, such as social distancing, may go away once the pandemic is under control, other factors such as the need for cleaner air in workplaces, will likely remain.

Even without the pandemic’s added burden, employee health and safety have been a challenge. Fatal injuries per 100,000 workers in the US dropped only marginally from 3.6 in 2010 to 3.5 in 2017.1 The Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) has plateaued in the past ten years,2 even as improvements in machinery and initiatives resulting from regulations and culture have made employers more accountable for employee safety.3

Getting to zero incidents in industries such as oil and gas and chemicals and utilities has proven elusive. One big problem has been money; employee health and safety (EHS) projects tend to struggle to acquire funding for digital investments. Another obstacle is older workers (age 55 and older), who make up 35% of the total workforce.4 They may perceive digital solutions to EHS as a threat and believe injuries are simply a part of the job.

Once the pandemic struck and new and often-evolving health and safety guidelines came into play, the already difficult job of EHS became even harder. EHS professionals need all the help they can get, and that means equipping them with smart tools and technologies. This is where manufacturing companies need to consider investing in the digital transformation of their EHS practices.

Core Priorities for Employee Health and Safety

In this new normal spurred by the pandemic, businesses need to find ways of using resources (materials, water, etc.) more efficiently and managing waste better to ensure optimal employee health and safety.

The risk posed by the old fashioned approach to waste management was recently highlighted by a giant wastewater pond on the verge of collapse in Piney Point, Florida.5 Nearby residents had to be evacuated, and polluted water from the pond had to be pumped into Florida’s waterways to avert the disaster. The collapse would have exposed the local population to toxic waste and likely resulted in billions of dollars in damages and penalties for those who operated the pond. In situations like this, the easy way out—to dig a hole and dump the waste—is no longer a viable option. And yet, for many industries such as power generation and livestock, cheap dumping grounds are crucial.

One way to minimize the need to process waste is to reduce it. The more efficient the utilization of raw materials, the less waste, which is one reason many companies have added Q (for quality) to EHS, making it QEHS. Strong quality processes don’t just result in happy customers, but they also reduce waste by lessening defective parts as a percentage of total production.

As with waste, an increased focus on health and safety is not just about the compliance imperative. The International Labor Organization estimates that nearly 4% of global GDP is lost due to health and safety issues6 and many companies see the emphasis on health and safety as a detriment to productivity.

“At the heart of any digital transformation lies an automated collection of data.”



Interestingly, countries with fewer incidents per 100,000 workers score higher on the competitiveness scale.7 However, there are direct costs that come from injuries or fatalities, such as compensation, litigation, medical expenses, and even property damage.

So, if ignoring or downplaying EHS is costly, is investing in digital technologies the answer?

The Emergence of EHS-focused Digital-led Solutions

Consider this: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has tightened compliance requirements while upping the maximum penalty for non-compliance to $13,653 per violation.8

This significant shift has emphasized the quality of inspections, which means the authorities will require more and accurate data. This can only happen if companies switch from error-prone, manual, paper-based data collection to automated data collection.

The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) guidelines are updated every two years by the United Nations. Deployment of digital solutions can help companies automate the updating process to stay compliant with GHS guidelines and improve decision-making for compliance and safety with better insights into hazardous chemical footprints. These digital solutions, which are often mobile-friendly, make safety information accessible to supervisors and employees in real time, allowing them to better manage people and the flow of materials on the shop floor.

But the potential of digital technologies goes beyond helping with compliance requirements.

EHS stands to benefit significantly from the rapid, enterprise-wide penetration of new technologies, including mobile, cloud, social, automation, AI, and more. These solutions can be leveraged to create increased awareness about situations where people need support in managing EHS risks. Imagine the potential if a worker on a remote site was equipped with sensors, could contact experts in real time, and get over-the-shoulder advice in the case of an emergency. With access to real-time data from sites in the cloud, companies can set up centralized EHS support centers or control rooms operated by highly trained experts.

Digital technologies integrate data with workers’ daily jobs—think smart sensor-embedded PPE or mobile-based applications. However, one of the significant challenges with capturing EHS data is that it’s either someone else’s job or not someone’s only job. In these situations, data capture is often delayed, inaccurate, or worse, not captured at all.

The case for digital transformation within EHS is about more than just compliance, though that is undoubtedly important. Good EHS practices improve productivity, protect a company’s reputation, and contribute to its bottom line.

Let’s look at a few specific areas and how digital technologies can help.

“Good EHS practices improve productivity, protect a company’s reputation, and contribute to its bottom line.”

Digital Technologies at the Forefront

Employee Health Management

As employees return to work, many organizations plan to deploy AI and IoT technologies to protect employees’ health and safety.9 These could be wearable devices that track temperature or facial recognition technologies for access control. Such tools will be used to monitor health, ensure safe distance interactions, and facilitate contactless access and security.

Manufacturing companies are also looking to expand the use of robotics and automation on both the shop floor and in cutting-edge warehouses to facilitate contactless delivery.10 For example, autonomous or remotely-guided vehicles and machines are being deployed to move items on the shopfloor and enable human-free loading and unloading at warehouses.

Industrial Hygiene

As more chemicals enter industrial workspaces, the need to assess and mitigate the associated risk grows. The trouble is, this is a specialist job and finding these skill sets is often costly and rare. The task is typically handled by EHS generalists, sometimes with the help of outside consultants, which is a risky approach given how deadly many of the chemicals can be.

Digital technologies can take care of the most challenging and time-consuming tasks involved in industrial hygiene. For example, chemical management software can track chemical inventory and ingredients. While it’s not difficult to know what chemicals are in your facility, knowing what they are made up of and how to store them is not as simple. Some ingredients, like methylene chloride, which is often part of paint-removing solvents, might be dangerous and include specific exposure monitoring requirements. So, suppose your facility managers aren’t sensitized to the presence of such ingredients or overlook it because it’s not a standalone chemical. In that case, you are likely to end up on the wrong side of an OSHA inspection.

Chemical management software ensures complete visibility into the aggregates and ingredients. These solutions also have built-in chemical and occupational exposure limit (OEL) databases, which are helpful to set up and maintain Industrial Hygiene (IH) sampling programs.

Other tools help with forming similar exposure groups, which can be used to determine medical surveillance, qualitative exposure assessments, and additional air sampling. Some solutions can even help you build and deploy your IH sampling plan, employee training, and IH reporting to cut time and errors at the time of audit.

Lockout and Tagout

Lockout and tagout (LOTO) helps companies prevent injuries from machines that are being repaired or serviced. This procedure is made up of a series of steps that employees take to eliminate a machine’s chance of unexpectedly starting up. These solutions provide access to information and equipment over smartphones and tablets with a search function, thus eliminating the need to sift through tons of paperwork.

Safety compliance software increases accountability by walking workers through each lockout step and prompting them to acknowledge that lockout has been done correctly. Each step is time and date stamped with the authorized worker’s name that has applied the lockout and data is available for each machine and can be accessed by managers using a LOTO dashboard.

Hazardous Substance and Compliance Management

Implementing GHS and REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals) compliance activities within organizations is no easy task.

However, tools that feed chemical regulatory data into corporate EHS and Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) systems provide regular updates as rules evolve and ensure that GHS classification and labeling are correct. These tools also come with document templates for developing MSDS, labels, and other hazard communication materials and provide easy access to supervisors for legal requirements and internal policies for operations within an organization.

Product Safety and Global Label Management

Labeling has always been a complex task because its intended for marketing and is used for shipment, safety, and other areas. The task has become more complex as regulations around product safety and disclosures have tightened substantially in the last decade. To make matters worse, labeling data resides in different places within an organization, such as with production, marketing, or logistics.

How can companies create labels that serve business needs and enable labeling compliance? Fortunately, technology can pull in data from different sources, including EHS modules with hazard specifications and symbols, enabled by specified workflows and a rule-based engine.

“EHS initiatives are most successful when they are well integrated with regular day-to-day tasks people perform.”


Environment Management

Digital technologies can manage air and water emissions, generating accurate data to meet legal requirements. Furthermore, they help detect and communicate deviations, manage investigations, and track follow-up activities. The software calculates and generates reports based on facilities’ day-to-day activities, using an exact virtual model of processes and materials. This produces accurate reports and improves compliance. Many of these tools come with hundreds of pre-loaded reports aligned with reporting requirements, which help cut errors and effort during inspections and audits.

Remote Maintenance Enablement with Smart Glasses

Given the pandemic’s current state, it’s not always possible or even desirable to send expert maintenance engineers to the site. Yet, the work needs to happen one way or another. One solution is to get them to supervise onsite work remotely by ‘seeing’ the actual steps with smart glasses. While such a solution is a must during COVID-19, it will continue to be useful post-pandemic as well, helping to cut travel and increase utilization of expensive expert resources.11

Digitizing Inspections

Once you have embarked on the journey to the digital transformation of the EHS function, you will have a lot of accurate and timely data at your fingertips. Deploying digital checklists for inspections will lead to the recording of data in real time. Enabling teams with the right tools like a mobile or web inspection checklist can mean easier, quicker, less tedious inspections and greater promotion of safety habits.

The Rise of EHS as Part of a Digital Strategy 

Companies are already investing in sensors and IoT devices for predictive maintenance and management of assets. They are also deploying tools for remote training and upskilling. The technologies required to transform EHS are no different.

At the heart of any digital transformation lies an automated collection of data often via IoT sensors, making that data accessible anywhere, anytime via cloud over mobile, and applying analytics to those datasets to draw actionable insights. This is precisely what EHS needs.

The cost of not investing in digital transformation for EHS is higher than ever. Not only is there a potential loss of productivity and possibilities of penalties, but there is a significant reputation risk.

Realizing the EHS of the Future 

The good news is that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel as you chart out the digital transformation of the EHS function, nor does it need to be a standalone exercise or investment. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Change the mindset: A major challenge EHS managers face is the employee mindset. People are afraid of reporting incidents for fearing of being blamed, others see injuries as part of the job, and some feel safety hurts productivity. All these fears and misconceptions are rooted in real-life experience. People have been scapegoated in accidents, and production has been stopped for minor reasons by overzealous EHS managers seeking to impose their authority.

Such mindsets will only change when there is a shift in on-the-ground practices. For example, the fear of punishment can be addressed by recognizing reporting incidents and creating a transparent process for assessing the cause, which focuses on corrective rather than punitive actions.

Look for expense sharing: Different departments within companies already invest in digital technologies such as AI and IoT, so there is a good chance that the data they generate will be useful to EHS. Look for opportunities where data generated by one function is helpful for the other. This will not only help reduce costs but will integrate EHS deeply with the overall digital strategy.

Don’t isolate EHS from operations: Make sure your EHS excellence effort is tightly integrated with the operations excellence initiative. There is a strong link between safety and operational performance. EHS initiatives are most successful when they are well integrated with regular day-to-day tasks people perform. Remember, the goal is safety in operations, not safety versus operations.

Switch from reactive to proactive: With the amount of real-time data available via IoT, there is an opportunity to leverage predictive analytics to avoid incidents rather than reacting to them once they happen.

The future of EHS in the post-pandemic world can be zero-incident, no matter what industry you operate in. But for that to happen, leadership needs to look beyond compliance as a moral imperative and view it as a boost to productivity and the bottom line. Finally, they must make the necessary investments in the digital transformation of the function to ensure success in the ‘new’ workplace.   M



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