Last reviewed 10 June 2016

Technology and the internet are making the workplace more complex but they are helping to create safer working environments, too. Jon Herbert looks at how the increasing availability of data is making its intelligent mark.

Workplaces that until quite recently were essentially manual are now becoming data-rich environments.

The pressures to put vast amounts of new and readily available information to good use can be daunting for SMEs as the data revolution grows exponentially. However, advances being made in large organisations can offer trickle-down health and safety opportunities for small companies.

Why is this important? As both conventional and online news channels have shown graphically over the last six months, the range of risks that businesses of all sizes face is now much wider.

The primary hazard businesses used to face was fire. Factory blazes were a common sight. That threat has been systematically reduced. However, as processes have become increasingly complicated, serious industrial accidents, often linked to chemical and toxic releases, are in the spotlight.

Recently, extreme weather, physical security threats — including the direct or knock-on effects of terrorism — and cybercrime have been added to the list that even ordinary business have to be prepared to face.

One of the fundamental duties of companies is to be able to evacuate buildings and associated sites safely and swiftly as soon as there is a well-evaluated probability of things going wrong.

Three minutes is the maximum exit time under current guidelines. In modern interconnected sites close to busy urban centres this is not always straightforward.

However, calm and controlled evacuation is now an area where technology and the internet are beginning to make a crucial difference.

Routes to safety

Clearing buildings and other workplaces promptly is a three-stage process. The first stage is to assess and pinpoint threats quickly and accurately. The second involves sharing this information in a meaningful way with all occupants. The third is organising the orderly use of best exit routes.

Technology is already able to help with the first two. Fire detection and notification systems can now be monitored automatically, although regular testing is still essential. Failure here can make a bad situation worse.

Technology is also testing the efficiency of emergency luminaires where the potential for power outages close to hazardous machinery and substances can be an additional risk. Light levels in critical areas, including exit routes, is increasingly being covered by regulation.

However, this is where dynamic signage technology with the increasing use of data is making its mark.

This way now please

In real life situations, the safest exit routes are not always static. They can change quickly, depending on a combination of risks, locations, visibility, emissions, obstacles and parameters such as time of day and shift patterns.

Research into how people behave during an emergency shows that static exit signs can actually lead staff and visitors towards greater danger.

Now, dynamic sign systems are beginning to use the wider availability of data from well-placed remote sensors to select and display the most appropriate route for immediate circumstances.

Online control is taking this a step further. Route signage is being tied in with preferential emergency lighting and the operation of security doors to nudge people instinctively towards safety. They can in effect stream people from different points of a site around specific hazards.

On larger sites, many managers are working with digital systems to send out very specific warnings and guidance messages to employees at different locations through their mobile devices. Real-time voice alerts are also being used.

More technology

The growing use and power of data in creating a safer working environment taps into the digital revolution in other ways. Significant advances in process safety technology are having a positive impact on occupational health and safety.

Process safety focuses on preventing fires and explosions, plus accidental chemical releases where hazardous plant and materials are involved, particularly in manufacturing and facilities such as onshore and offshore oil and gas production plants where threat levels can be high.

Occupational health and safety mainly addresses personal safety management. However, well-developed management systems also address process safety issues. The tools and techniques used are often the same.

Remaining gaps are being narrowed by dynamic date environments.

The common thread is that the data revolution, while still in its infancy in industry, is providing an increasingly broadening flow of information about complex, sophisticated and vulnerable plants, buildings and machinery. Access to and use of this data, and its implications, does not have to be restricted.

The problem many large facilities face is that small errors can quickly become big problems. Being able to link up everything that can be designated an individual IP address and interrogated online is tapping into further exciting opportunities made possible in dynamic data environments.

It is predicted that a new generation of intelligent process control systems is imminent that will also enhance plant safety systems.

The difficulty many process companies have is that safety systems distributed across large sites need to be replaced for the simple reason that their support services are no longer available.

Having worked well historically, instead of being replaced in a well-planned and phased programme, they are frequently replaced en masse as part of wider control system updates.

There are performance and cost advantages to this approach. There are downsides too, including “common cause failures” across whole systems and increased exposure to cyber threats.

Even so, the oil and gas refining sector now integrates safety into its control systems. The real significance is the explosion of data in modern control system technology.

Wheels within wheels

Data, by definition, can have many end-users. Traditionally, alarm information allows operators to act quickly. However, the increasing availability of data made possible by the Internet of Things allows much more meaningful analysis.

Trends and micro-trends can be detected and apportioned to causes and remedies.

From a health and safety perspective, potential employee problems can be identified. Individual operators may have workloads that are too heavy. Higher incidences may be traced to antisocial hours. Shift patterns could be important. People working alone could create, and be vulnerable to, increased risks.

These issues can now be addressed; in the past this has not always been easy.

Wider audience

The easy sharing of data also means that critical alarm information can be passed simultaneously to maintenance and engineering staff who may be based off-site. Having an integrated understanding of the plant tends towards a safer working environment.

Another key development is automated analytics. These can predict early maintenance priorities designed to eliminate foreseeable problems.

The goal here is the evolution of standards for safe operating envelopes that will lead to individual pieces of equipment and machinery being protected by programmes designed specifically to prevent breakdowns and performance losses that could have wider consequences.

Ultimately, this is expected to give rise to integrated plant management from initial design through to operator control and the communication of performance dynamics.

As the volume of data grows, further systems to digest it will evolve and new skills and training will be needed to understand its significance.

Nevertheless, developments that seem unfamiliar today are likely to be tomorrow’s commonplace benchmarks.

Increasingly, the working environment is being seen not as a series of discrete systems so much as an integrated whole that can be questioned, challenged and improved.

Data is paving the way to an instant world of continuous change and improvement. Forewarned is forearmed.