The convergence of wireless devices, low-cost sensors, Big Data, and crowdsourcing will change the way you assess risk in your workplace.

How Technology Megatrends Are Shaping the Future of Safety, Health, and Environmental Monitoring

The convergence of wireless devices, low-cost sensors, Big Data, and crowdsourcing will change the way you assess risk in your workplace.

New ways to monitor, measure and control workplace hazards are emerging with the rapid development of consumer-driven technologies, and soon this will result in alternative ways to assess risk and exposure to a wide variety of potentially harmful conditions. Technology megatrends, including the rapid growth of the Internet of Things (IoT), where electronic devices become instantly addressable online and can "integrate" with other consumer products we use every day, are already starting to have influence on how we can assess the working environment in real time.

The universal adoption of smartphones and tablets (otherwise known as hand-held devices, or HHDs) has dramatically affected our daily routines on so many levels, to the point where these devices have almost become extensions of ourselves. They are the primary way we communicate, obtain information, and document the world around us--for example, we use them to communicate using text and email, in addition to "old-fashioned phone calls," and we can access the entire "webisphere" of knowledge almost instantly: Everything from SDSs to NIOSH sampling methods to OSHA regs are at our fingertips. There are now apps that can mimic the performance of certain monitoring devices we use in the workplace, such as sound-level meters, (albeit not with the accuracy and traceability needed for compliance purposes), and these have proven to be very useful for determining where and when to perform personal noise dosimetry for meeting regulatory compliance and hearing conservation objectives. And more and more, we use the camera and video capabilities in our HHDs to document and share not just the fanstastic desert we enjoyed at our favorite restaurant, but also to illustrate workplace conditions, practices, and hazards—and then to email or text these to others to emphasize their importance.

Growing awareness of this alternative use of technology by the safety and health profession is behind the recent launch of the NIOSH Center for Direct Reading and Sensor Technologies in August 2014. According to Dr. John Howard, the director of NIOSH, "The future of direct-reading devices and smartphone applications may help to revolutionize the practice of industrial hygiene and safety evaluations."

Wireless Devices + Monitoring  Instruments x Big Data = Better Outcomes
Today, there are a growing number of safety and industrial hygiene monitoring devices that already transmit data wirelessly to a central hub (devices such as area gas and radiation monitors). More recently, other personal monitors are beginning to add wireless communications to their performance specifications. This will allow safety and health practitioners to remotely monitor multiple workers in real time and be alerted when exposure levels become significant or excessive.

These new technologies will leverage off of the proliferation of HHDs and the incredible power they possess by marrying instruments that are typically used for exposure assessment with your smartphone or tablet using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. This, along with the development of small, low-power, low-cost sensors opens up tremendous possibilities for safety and health professionals to multiply their ability to screen work areas for potential hazards and monitor far greater numbers of workers in real time with far less effort. Then, by using the HHD as a bridge to your corporate server through the use of email to transfer results of monitoring these multiple hazards on multiple workers, the traditional "speed bumps" of having to manually download reports one by one from a monitor or other instrument to a PC, generating individual reports, and then stripping out the important parts of the report (for inclusion in a medical or safety surveillance database, for example) will eventually disappear.

The use of data mining and the emergence of Big Data as an analysis and management tool is yet another recent megatrend that will forever change the safety and health profession. As the number of samples that can be taken in the field increases dramatically, the accuracy of the results will grow and decisions taken to limit exposures will be based more on the statistical analysis of a far greater range of samples. This will help to identify outliers (individuals, processes, and practices that result in greater exposure levels), as well as give confidence to the practitioner and management that they are capturing a more accurate assessment of the workers’ exposures through a variety of operating conditions and work rates.

Safety by the Numbers (Crowdsourcing Beyond the Perimeter and In-house Crowdsourcing)
What is Crowdsourcing? According to one definition, it is "the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers" (Wikipedia). "To crowdsource" is defined by Google as: "obtain information or input into a particular task or project by enlisting the services of a number of people, either paid or unpaid, typically via the Internet."

An example of how smartphones have transfigured our daily lives involves using the devices we all carry every day to measure and report levels of noise pollution in the ambient environment. This illustrates the potential for changes in monitoring the working environment, as well. Two applications of crowdsourcing to address environmental noise pollution illustrate the power of device integration with wireless apps: One is "Noise Watch" and the other is "NoiseTube"; both use the microphone and sound-level meter type applications available for phones and tablets with their built-in GPS location data to display real-time noise measurements on a map, just as you would visualize traffic conditions (green, yellow, red) on your maps app today—except that it’s displaying noise level. Another interesting development of crowdsourcing is the use of smartphone cameras to measure air pollution by asking users to orient their device toward the horizon at sunset and sunrise to use "haziness" as an indicator of relative pollution levels. While these crowdsourced apps are not intended to provide data that would stand up in a litigation scenario or other regulatory challenge, they make good general indicators and become "trending devices" when taken as a whole over time. From these examples, it’s not hard to imagine how a large company operating multiple locations of similar type and capacity could create and exploit their own "internal crowdsourcing" function in order to gain better insight into the consistency of their processes and trends, for both worker exposure levels and ambient pollution levels at multiple sites.

The Safety, Health and Environmental professional will soon be able to choose from a wider number of solutions that incorporate the latest developments in electronics, cellular and wireless communication, sensors, and software, all of which are driven by and are essential components of three "megatrends"--IoT, Big Data, and Social Networking. This will fundamentally alter the way in which we go about collecting information for risk assessment, exposure assessment, and thus how we implement better and more cost-effective solutions for protecting workers’ lives and well-being.

The more we become aware of these trends and developments, the better able we will be to integrate them into our sampling strategies and analysis methods, which creates greater value from our daily work as safety and health professionals.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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