Safety technology: adoption, acceptance and use

Experts share tips for successfully putting it to work

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Photo: Nikola Stojadinovic/iStockphoto

During a pilot program that involved equipping several companies’ vehicles with telematics to record data on driver behaviors, Sabrina Freewynn and her colleagues at SAIF noticed something: Employees at one company purposely avoided using the vehicles.

The issue? Company leadership didn’t communicate to the workers the purpose of the system.

“If the employees don’t know what’s happening with that data, what’s becoming of it or how it’s being used, they’re going to get really suspicious,” said Freewynn, a safety and health innovations program manager for the Oregon-based nonprofit, which provides workers’ compensation insurance in the state.

Telematics and other technologies can provide solutions to address workplace hazards and help improve safety, but different factors can hinder their acceptance, adoption and/or use. Those include rolling out the technology too quickly, concerns about privacy and – as with Freewynn’s recent experience – poor communication.

Associate Editor Alan Ferguson discusses this article on the January 2022 episode of Safety+Health's “On the Safe Side” podcast.

Involve employees early and develop a roadmap

To improve the likelihood of success, employers and safety professionals should engage employees early in the adoption process.

“It’s very important for the decision-maker to connect with eventual users,” said Mei-Li Lin, senior vice president of business innovation and strategic partnership at DEKRA. “It’s best to actually invite them, involve them in the decision-making process. In adopting new technologies, the feasibility of the tool set and readiness of the user’s skill set and mindset are necessary ingredients for sustainable success.”

The National Safety Council’s Work to Zero initiative provides a safety technology pilot and implementation roadmap, and describes steps for managing change. (Go to nsc.org/worktozero to find the roadmap.)

Among the initial steps: providing the justifications or reasons for why a change is needed and determining the time needed for change.

“Oftentimes, a company will skip right to rolling out a technology, which disregards any work invested to prepare people, refine the culture and adopt a strategy for the proposed technology,” NSC cautions.

Start small

Experts say it’s crucial to start small and initiate a pilot program, instead of making a technological change too large or too ambitious.

Additionally, because many technologies are emerging and may not yet be widely used, employers and workers might encounter some initial hurdles during implementation or a solution that ultimately doesn’t fit their needs.

For example, exoskeletons may be less effective on different body types, noted Sarah Ballini-Ross, safety advancement and innovation project coordinator at SAIF. Workers also might find issues with using exoskeletons in conjunction with items such as tool belts or personal protective equipment.

Another example: augmented reality goggles that may not fit all head sizes.

“You can really learn a lot from a pilot program,” Ballini-Ross said. “You can figure out what are those pain points. You can make those changes early on before you’ve wasted a lot of time, resources and energy on something that may not be the right fit.”

Freewynn advises talking with a safety technology’s manufacturer about how a product might fit or work within your organization before finalizing a purchase. “When any technology is rolled out, it’s very helpful to have someone onsite that watches for fit and use issues, and addresses them right away.”

Provide support

Workers may be apprehensive – even fearful – of new technology, or may not understand what it can (and can’t) do.

“I’ve gone onto jobsites before and the only time people ever heard of an exoskeleton is from ‘Iron Man,’” Ballini-Ross said. “So they have these unrealistic expectations of what technology can do for them.”

One potential reason for worker apprehension? Fear of failure, according to Carly Kroll, global partner and sales education lead at CareAR, a Xerox Co.

“You don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of your peers, and so when learning something new, you’re worried,” Kroll said. “What if I’m not as fast at it as everyone else? What if I look like an idiot while I’m doing it? What if I mess up and I get called out in front of everyone on it?”

This is where ongoing support and encouragement is worthwhile.

“It is helpful to workers to learn what the technology is in a vocabulary and style in which they are familiar,” Kroll said. “Furthermore, getting information shared in a way that can be visual, hands-on or shared by a person they respect are great ways to get staff on board with change. Finally, being kind and patient with employees helps them to feel supported and not get frustrated.”

Frequent check-ins with employees are another essential step toward ensuring the technology is working or fitting as intended.

Communicate

Privacy is a common employee concern regarding safety technology. During the SAIF pilot program, it was one of the main reasons why workers were hesitant to use vehicles equipped with telematics.

Ballini-Ross said a turning point was when the employers used the system to reward good driving behaviors. Additionally, company leadership can build and maintain trust by “walking the walk” on how it uses data, showing employees that it’s trustworthy.

“It’s really easy to tamper with fleet telematics; you can take it out and you know really quickly what happens,” Ballini-Ross said. “But if you have a good culture, your employees aren’t going to be fearful of their jobs and feel like they have to take it out or lose their job.”

Strong communication that emphasizes the safety-related reasons for implementing a new technology is paramount. Freewynn advises employers to tell their workers: “This is why we are doing this for our company. It’s to help us send you home at the end of the day.”

The worker’s perspective: models, guides and the role of influencers

Fred Davis from the University of Michigan looked at technological acceptance and developed a model, published in 1989. His model focuses on two key parts: perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use.

For employers, that means understanding a technological change from a worker’s perspective: Is this technology going to make my job easier or more complicated, and will it be easy or challenging to use?

“If it’s only one or the other, though, you’re not necessarily going to get acceptance and adoption,” said Carly Kroll, global partner and sales education lead at CareAR, a Xerox Co. “You really need both of those together.”

While working for a consulting firm in 2020, Kroll wrote a guide on technological acceptance, which was based on her master’s thesis. In the guide, Kroll details six steps to improve acceptance:

  1. Inform employees
  2. Simplify information about the change
  3. Use visual materials such as infographics, photos and videos
  4. Identify “influencers” in the organization who will help pave the way
  5. Use demonstrations and hands-on training
  6. Encourage and support employees

Influencers – or champions – are well-regarded people within an organization who, as the term implies, can sway opinions.

“It doesn’t matter their role,” Kroll said. “It matters who they are within the organization in terms of respect. And if they get to be a part of that decision-making process, it will help others feel like, ‘We got to help make this decision. We chose to use this.’”

Engage

Another major worker concern may be job loss or job change. This is another situation in which engaging them early in the process can help.

For example, company leadership can work with employees to determine where robots or cobots can help perform tedious, repetitive tasks – or more dangerous ones.

Freewynn said one of SAIF’s policyholders had their workers do just that. They selected the “most annoying job” and helped design a robot to perform that work. “This isn’t the job that anyone really wanted,” she said. “It caused a lot of repetitive injuries. The employees got to be creative and build this robot.”

Freewynn said people who use drones have told her that the technology gave them the opportunity to work when they no longer were able to perform physical labor.

That’s where culture comes in, Ballini-Ross said. “Maybe this technology is going to take away that job, but how do we harness those skills and those capabilities in a different way? That’s where you’ll see the difference between good companies and bad companies in the adoption of technology.”

Tout benefits beyond safety

Employers can promote other benefits of the new technologies, too.

SAIF’s telematics pilot program involved 10 different employers. At one company, the telematics system eliminated the need for workers to fill out timecards. At another company, a dispatcher no longer had to contact employees who were driving, which helped prevent distractions – and annoyance.

And how about this: Using an exoskeleton can help an employee enjoy life away from work.

“With an exoskeleton, at the end of the day they have the energy to go home and play with their kids,” Ballini-Ross said. “That’s what’s going to get an employee to wear an exoskeleton, much more than me telling them, ‘You’re going to experience a 40% reduction in the muscular strain and strain on your lower back muscles between these vertebrae.’ That doesn’t mean anything. But how you feel, what you walk away with – that’s what you’re going to remember.”

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