How to harness your digital transformation to improve workplace safety and productivity: Part one

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The focus on optimization and performance is worthwhile but misses a big and important benefit: workplace health and safety.

Co-authored by Mike Dennis, Chiranth Ramaswamy, and Arvind Subramanian

When manufacturers talk about the internet of things (IoT), they almost always jump to the many bottom-line benefits, such as improving machine performance, or introducing greater levels of predictive maintenance. And no wonder – in today’s industrial environment, the ability to gather intelligence about machines is critical for ensuring smooth and streamlined operations. It’s also a big reason why total manufacturing spend on IoT hit USD178 billion in 2017, according to IDC.

But this focus on optimization and performance, while worthwhile, misses a very big, and very important benefit, one that literally carries life or death implications: workplace health and safety.

In this first of a three-part blog series, we want to explore the untapped potential of IoT to not only help the industrial workplace perform better, but also make it a safer and, ultimately, a far more productive place for employees to work.

Let’s start with the numbers. It’s clear from IDC that there’s been no lack of investment in IoT. But it’s also apparent that these investments aren’t focused directly on helping people. Looking at productivity data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, you’ll see that productivity growth is at its lowest rate since the 1970s. A similar trend can be observed when it comes to safety. During this same period, there has been no significant decrease in occupational injuries and illness in the manufacturing, construction, and natural resources/mining industries. In fact, numbers are actually rising in some sectors.

This is a trend that can’t continue, and technology has an important role to play in solving it.

When organizations think about investing in IoT, their focus is usually on use cases with quick wins and a fast payback period of investment – the “low-hanging fruit” as we like to call them. The problem is that many manufacturers end up focusing on processes and assets where the benefits can be high, but the payback period of investment is slow. According to research in our recent white paper, worker/asset tracking, productivity tracking, and environment monitoring are among the few use cases focused on people and that have high payback potential and quick wins.

Beyond the obvious merit in helping people avoid injuries or worse, consider the costs that come with not taking action. The US Department of Labor estimates that companies pay almost USD1 billion per week for direct workers’ compensation costs alone. And according to the 2017 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, serious workplace injuries cost US companies USD59.9 billion a year.

Simply put, using IoT technology to boost workplace health and safety – and ultimately productivity – is among the lowest of the low-hanging fruit.

The good news is there are no shortage of tools and solutions available to manufacturers who are serious about achieving this goal. This includes the use of wearables and sensors to track an individual’s key health vitals or details about the environment in which they are working: analyzing temperature, humidity or the presence of toxic gases, for example. It may also include giving workers access to technology that will immediately alert safety personnel should they encounter trouble. Other tools can help automatically lock people out of hazardous areas, or track when they enter areas of high risk.

With such a wealth of technologies and the direct connection they have to improving productivity, why haven’t more organizations taken advantage of them?

The answer, as it so often does, comes down to human nature. Even when it’s designed to protect them, people don’t like to be forced to wear devices or told they are being tracked, fearing that their privacy will be put at risk, or out of a worry that there are other motives – namely performance tracking – at play. Others may simply prefer to rely on “tribal” memory – they’ve done it safely for years, and don’t want or need the assistance of technology to help them.

With this in mind, the first thing to consider when adopting IoT to improve safety is change management. It’s not enough to hope people see the benefits and go along. Instead, engage people in conversations and get their feedback. Make the rationale for technology adoption clear – that it’s about them and their needs, not yours. Finally, start small. Start with easy-to-implement changes that can show clear results but also, demonstrate that there’s nothing to be feared and everything to gain by making a switch.

In our next blog post, we’ll look in more detail on how to improve productivity levels as you create a safer working environment, and how our experience combined with our team of experts, can help you achieve your objectives. To learn more, feel free to reach out to me on social media.

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