Technology, ‘big data’ and worker safety

Experts discuss where technology could take safety, the potential challenges of ‘Industry 4.0’ and how safety pros might fit into the picture

Big data

Predicting decades into the future, especially in the ever-changing landscape of technology, is a bold and often difficult endeavor.

Glimpses are available, however, of the advances likely coming to the occupational safety and health world – such as automated forklifts, machine learning, augmented reality and “smart” personal protective equipment. Some, if not most, of those advances are expected to lead to a deluge of “big data” for analysis and insights.

Providing a gateway, experts say, is the imminent arrival of fifth-generation wireless technology, or 5G. It’s anticipated that development will pave the way for machine-to-machine interactions with virtually no lag time, among other changes.


“Now we have this giant fire hose of data coming out of these cool safety devices,” said Keith Bowers, founder of Bowers Management Analytics in Phoenix. “In the future, it’s going to be this giant flash flood of data coming from everything we use, including people’s movements and all the machines’ movements, and everything else. It’s already beyond human comprehension, and it’s going to jump by orders of magnitude.”


Of course, challenges are ahead, including the continued need to soothe anxieties over data privacy. Also part of the conversation are questions of where safety professionals fit into this new world – often deemed “Industry 4.0,” or the fourth industrial revolution.

“Safety professionals need to embrace the future and help define what new technology and data can bring their professions, not be worried about it, but define what the future path is,” said Mike Smith, senior vice president of solutions, innovation and technology at Oxnard, CA-based DEKRA Organizational Safety and Reliability.

Safety+Health gathered insight from experts on some of the questions surrounding future technologies and safety. Responses are presented here.

Where are most organizations in terms of using new technology and safety?


“There’s a huge variety. It varies with the maturity of the organization, and also sometimes with the industry. Some industries are more ahead of the curve than others, but the more mature organizations have departments that are already working with big data and finding meaningful insights.”


– Alison Black, research consultant, DEKRA Organizational Safety and Reliability




“More and more people are starting to look into other types of leading indicators, which would be leading indicators for coming off of passive collection, so off of the internet of things, sensor data, etc. So, they’re starting to look into that. I think that’s still ripe, and everybody talks about it. I think it’s not happening in a lot of places.”


– Kent Szalla, general manager, Predictive Solutions, Pittsburgh




“I think, for the most part, the safety profession still hasn’t gotten its arms around what it can leverage with the existing data pool, let alone what other stuff is going to tell us.”


– John Dony, director of the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council




“Right now, things are very general and industrywide, and as we get more data and better tools to handle that data, we move to more process specific. In the future, we’ll get more specific, down to employees and even machines. Each employee might have his own customized health and safety plan. Each department on a factory floor might have its own customized plan, based on lots of real data.”

– Keith Bowers

Who will lead the way: Larger companies with presumably more resources, or smaller, more agile ones?


“I think it’s going to have to be on a case-by-case basis. It’s going to depend on what the motivation of that organization happens to be and how receptive their culture is to change and adopting technology.”


– Mike Smith




“While larger organizations may have more funding and resources, they will have to develop, hire or outsource the right teams and skill sets, just like the smaller organizations.”

– Alison Black

What are some potential challenges ahead?

“As technology increases on the shop floor, the expectation for workers gets more and more complex, as well. That’s definitely a challenge, and that’s something organizations need to invest in from a training perspective.”

– John Dony

“One of the potential challenges will be getting overwhelmed with everything that’s happening from a technology standpoint and becoming paralyzed. Companies need to take their blinkers off (and) embrace and understand the megatrends that are happening right now, like machine learning and [artificial intelligence]. This tide is not going to stop, and you don’t want to be left behind and overlook opportunities to drive your business forward.”

– Mike Smith

How should privacy concerns be handled?

“Privacy and security are issues, because for [data-generating products] to be used at an enterprise level, it needs to be extremely rigorous from a data-security standpoint. … Even if you aggregate that data and anonymize it, it’s still something that leaves a lot of people a little bit iffy.”

– John Dony

“Hopefully, there will be some natural balancing out with some regulations around not only data capture, but the ability to use it only for specifically stated and agreed-upon reasons.”

– Alison Black

“It’s a hot topic right now. The general public [is] becoming more educated around this issue and its impact on them personally. This concern is not going away. Workable regulations must and will be created.”

– Mike Smith

Where do safety professionals fit into this new world?

“There still needs to be some level of human intervention and hands on that data, because you can do computer modeling all you want, but then you’re going to need to make an intervention that kind of ends up relating to human behavior, thoughts and actions.”

– John Dony

“As data and analytics become more automated and part and parcel of the normal environment, there’s still going to be a huge need for quality problem-solving related to applying this new insight. Understanding operations, exposure and the working interface will be even more important, as will the ability to be creative and solution-focused. Safety professionals working collaboratively across the business, using solid data insight, will help move beyond predictive to a more prescriptive approach to exposure reduction.”

– Mike Smith

“The role of the safety professional is not going away, and it’s certainly not going to be absorbed by a statistician. The role will adapt and the tool kit will expand.”

– Alison Black

“Big data won’t replace safety professionals, but it will free them to do what they do best. … As big data becomes more important, soft skills become more important for safety professionals. Safety professionals don’t need to become techies. They need to become better at what they took that job for: To develop culture, keep people safe, and develop an appropriate environment and the appropriate type of organization to reduce incidents.”

– Keith Bowers

Post a comment to this article

Safety+Health welcomes comments that promote respectful dialogue. Please stay on topic. Comments that contain personal attacks, profanity or abusive language – or those aggressively promoting products or services – will be removed. We reserve the right to determine which comments violate our comment policy. (Anonymous comments are welcome; merely skip the “name” field in the comment box. An email address is required but will not be included with your comment.)