Digital transformation is not often thought of as a blue-collar issue. However Richard Coleman, General Manager HSE, Asciano, argues that health and safety professionals have an opportunity to shape the digital agenda within their organisations.

Speaking on the Safety On Tap podcast, Coleman said he was surprised virtual reality is not yet widely used as a training tool for health and safety.

The technology is here,” Coleman said. “It’s ready, it’s scalable, it’s pretty cheap and I can put a helmet on and be in any workplace in the world looking around, understanding the hazards and risks in a really engaging way.

And yet whenever I go to visit a new business or a new site I’m made to stand up and listen to someone, generally in a brown cardigan and a with comb over, explaining me to in slow, turgid prose about the emergency management process at that site and using 27 PowerPoint slides to show me.

Whereas you could stick me in a helmet and I could walk the emergency route, understand it and listen to the alarm. I could do that cheaply and easily today and I’m just not seeing people do it, and they should.

Richard Coleman

(Asciano HSE general manager, Richard Coleman)

He identified other disruptive technologies for the health and safety industry, including AI connected to sensor technology, which is able to make real-time decisions about the right course of action without a human. This kind of technology will automate roles such as physical inspection of plants or pre-start checks, and remove workers from “… the firing line of hazardous work”.

However, a shift in industry skills is needed to meet the new brief.

With less of a focus on day-to-day operational tasks, management structures will need to become more like creative thinkers — concerned with how to apply technology in a new way, the Asciano HSE executive argues.

It’s more a creative, consultative growth mindset that people are going to need,” Coleman said.

He urged those people just starting out in the industry to get “digitally literate”.

What I mean by that is not just being able to swipe left or right on an app or understand how to turn on your iPad, but, [ask] what is coding? how does coding work? where are the opportunities in your business to apply this technology? Look outside your industry for solutions and try and bring them in. I think digital literacy for this profession and the applying it creatively is critical.

Coleman is tipping people “whose only source of comfort is how long their checklist is” will be out of a job in five years’ time.

Embracing digital disruption

He conceded that the natural tendency of health and safety professionals is to feel uncomfortable about potentially introducing a new set of risks when deploying radically new technology-driven processes. However, he urged safety professionals to apply the proper risk management process, weighing up the risks and benefits.

I think we have to be smart about saying ‘what is the opportunity? and what are the control measures we need to put in place to mitigate those downsides?’ I don’t think that thinking is any different from what we do today, however because some of those changes are going to be big, we are perhaps going to have to be a little bit brave.

For example, Asciano has automated its Port Botany operations, removing stevedores from straddle carriers.

Clearly there isn’t a human in there to intervene if something goes wrong but there is plenty of process logic control, there’s plenty of computing power and there’s plenty of intelligence in the system to manage those downside risks.

The role of safety professionals

Designing and building solutions that require consultations and testing is a core strength of safety professionals, Coleman says. “That means they’ve got an opportunity to take on a role within their internally business to how use disruptive technology for positive gain.

We know that you don’t just decide to change a process and turn in on one day and it expect things to work,” Coleman said. “We know you have to consult, we know you have to get feedback, we know you have to test in the field. We know you have to iterate and build things over time. It’s not happening yet, but there is a real opportunity for the safety profession to play a pretty significant role.

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