The shifting demographic makeup of the global workforce is posing unprecedented challenges when it comes to catering for workers’ safety requirements, from the millennial generation’s digital needs to the health concerns of increasing numbers of older workers. Gene Vena, vice president of engineering and chief technology officer for Honeywell
A key challenge for the safety industry is to develop technology that keeps workers across all age groups safer and more productive while catering to their diverse needs. At the millennial end of the spectrum, there are specific health and safety concerns to consider. Young workers are over-represented in temporary and more precarious jobs that often lack appropriate supervision or training. They are also more likely to operate in higher-risk sectors and perform more physically demanding tasks than older workers. As a result, young workers are up to 50% more likely to suffer workplace injuries than their older counterparts and are also vulnerable to the development of occupational illnesses later in life.
Millennials also have specific expectations that set them apart from the rest of the workforce, especially when it comes to technology. Having grown up with broadband and smartphones being the norm they expect instant access to information and three-of-four believe that access to technology makes them more productive at work.
The safety industry is addressing such multifaceted challenges by developing smarter and more connected personal protective equipment (PPE) that offers workers the same level of interactivity and ease-of-use as the technology they use at home. What used to be purely physical devices – such as hard hats and gas detectors – can now be part of the Internet of Things (IoT).
For a start, RFID and Bluetooth-enabled PPE and gas detectors now connect to smartphones to become smart, edge devices able to collect and transmit data. They can help address the younger workers’ lack of training and experience, enabling them to take advantage of the technology they’re most familiar with. For example, a worker can interrogate their equipment with a smartphone and receive immediate, on-demand training on its use through tutorial videos and checklists.
The transformation of safety hardware into smart equipment is also automating many manual safety compliance activities. For example, gates equipped with RFID or Bluetooth identifiers can immediately detect whether a worker has appropriate training to access a hazardous area and is wearing the right equipment to perform a certain task, sending them – and the safety manager – an alert on their smartphones.
Honeywell’s experience with customers suggests that this connected approach to safety can help foster younger workers’ uptake of PPE and also protect their health in the long term. In many industries, the focus has historically been on detecting major, potentially fatal gas leaks, but rising public awareness of occupational lung disease has broadened the attention to potentially dangerous lower-level exposures. Bluetooth-enabled portable gas detectors combined with software and cloud technology now enable safety managers to receive and analyse data on a worker’s exposure to toxic gas in real time and over time, making it possible to monitor their health from the outset and take proactive measures to help prevent occupational diseases later in life.
The ageing workforce: making a case for connected technology
Like their younger colleagues, older workers have specific health and safety concerns that need to be taken into account. They are, for example, more likely to be affected by chronic health problems and take longer to recover from injuries.
The latest connected safety equipment can help address some of these challenges, but it may prove ineffective without the buy-in of the older workers, many of whom were brought up before the digital revolution. It is vital that employers educate and support them so that they fully understand the benefits of using the new technology in their working life.
Although younger workers are generally more vulnerable to on-the-job injuries, occupational deaths are more likely to occur among older workers, with those between 60 and 64 years old having a fatal injury rate almost double that of younger workers. A lot of these fatalities may be due to lack of appropriate preventative measures and effective rescue procedures, which is where connected, data-driven safety equipment comes in.
For example, the latest portable gas detectors, combined with software and cloud technology, enable safety managers to immediately access, on a smartphone, tablet or PC, critical data such as toxic gas readings, man-down alerts and the worker’s location. PPE integrating wearable biometric monitors can also measure personal vital statistics to warn of biomedical dangers such as abnormal body temperature and blood pressure. Armed with this intelligent health and safety data, the safety manager can immediately alert a worker operating in a confined space to step out of a dangerous situation or send immediate rescue if a man-down alert is received.
The ability to monitor and protect older workers’ health and wellbeing over time further supports the case for connected technology. For example, the integration of miniaturised motion sensors and portable wireless transmitters in PPE can help address one of the most common work-related conditions: musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Intelligent harnesses and smart footwear enable safety managers to continuously monitor a worker’s posture, enabling them to tackle MSDs proactively.
To encourage the older generation’s uptake of connected safety technology, it is also crucial to develop interfaces that are as simple and intuitive with easy-to-use app-based, touch-screen environments. Voice recognition technology is now taking this trend even further, with display screen equipment turning into a pure visualisation tool that doesn’t require any manual input.
The safety industry is at a turning point. Safety equipment that, historically, has too often been regarded as ‘a necessary evil’, is now starting to be perceived as an enabler of safety, health and productivity that is meaningful to workers across generations. By using retrofitted wireless data transfer technology, like Near Field Communication (NFC), everything from eyewear to hardhats can become connected, while further innovations in wearable sensors make it possible to monitor any parameter that could affect a workers’ health. Ultimately, the safety industry is moving from a policy-based approach to an information-driven approach to reduce workplace risk, which will lead to a safer and healthier workforce regardless of age.
1. The so-called millennials are expected to make up 50% of the global working population by 2020: https://www.pwc.com/m1/en/
2. Workers aged 55–64 are due to account for 30% of the workforce in many European countries by 2030: https://healthy-workplaces.eu/