Advanced technology is capable of helping safety professionals make a safer workplace, but it is by no means a silver bullet that, by itself, will make jobsites safe.
Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) are gaining traction in the workplace as companies use this technology as they seek to become more efficient and, ostensibly, safer.
But with this new technology comes new challenges, according to law firm Seyfarth Shaw, with one “inevitable risk” being improper reliance on the tech resulting in complacency on the part of employers.
Employer safety duty can’t be delegated to technology
AR and AI technologies can comprehensively analyze photographs of the workplace for compliance with easy-to-spot safety rules, such as PPE violations. When combined with real-time images, this tech is capable of spotting these safety issues in dynamic workplaces.
However, for employers to assume the workplace is safe because the technology hasn’t identified any issues, would be a mistake, Seyfarth Shaw states.
Federal OSHA regulations point out that employers are responsible for providing safe workplaces and that duty can’t be delegated to an AI program or technology in general.
That means that employers shouldn’t rely solely on the technology but can certainly use it to augment a safety program.
For example, an AI program used with the photo-analytics described above “would be a supplement to, not a replacement for, a competent person making frequent and regular inspections at a construction site.”
2 stories: Robots = safe workplaces v. Robots killed 41 workers
Another example of how technology can both help workplaces be safer while simultaneously presenting new hazards comes from two Safety News Alert stories on robotics released earlier in 2023.
In one story, published on May 31, the National Safety Council (NSC) presented information on how the use of robots can make workplaces safer. The story states that robots could be used for:
- inspecting confined spaces and industrial facilities, especially in the construction, mining and logging industries
- transporting parts, goods and materials combined with the use of sensors and computer vision to minimize the risk of human-machine collisions
- using robotic arms for precision cutting and welding and for handling toxic, high temperature or explosive materials, and
- machine tending and parts repositioning by using robotic arms and AMRs to reduce the risks of manual machine handling.
However, just a few months later, another story detailed how the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) analyzed U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics records, revealing that there were 41 workers killed by robots between 1992 and 2017.
The NIOSH research sought to highlight “the growing challenges of protecting human workers who perform job tasks with help from robots.”
Looking at those two stories, it may seem like the NSC is saying, “Technology will solve your safety problems” while NIOSH is countering with, “Technology could kill your employees.”
Bottom line: Tech is meant to enhance, not replace
The truth of the matter is that both organizations stress that the use of advanced technologies can help make workplaces safer, with the emphasis being on “help.”
NIOSH and the NSC have stressed that this tech shouldn’t be relied on as the sole method for ensuring a safe workplace. Rather, it should be used as another tool for employers and safety professionals to use in a safety program.
As Seyfarth Shaw pointed out, the idea is to use this technology to enhance a safety program, not replace it.