How can your digital strategy help improve EHS outcomes?

By

Rebecca Dabbs

Ernst & Young Australia Climate Change and Sustainability Services Partner

Transforming the way businesses are thinking about health and safety. Passionate about helping women succeed. Accountant turned health and safety professional. Role model. Mother to two children.

9 minute read 12 Aug 2019

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Technological advancements are changing the nature of how EHS professionals mitigate risk, make decisions and allocate resources.

Digital technology is changing our economies, our societies and our way of life. The management of environment, health and safety (EHS) stands to be significantly impacted by digital. Technological advancements are changing the nature of how EHS professionals mitigate risk, make decisions and allocate resources. From the automation of processes, through the proliferation of in-field sensors and the evolution toward predictive analytics, workers and organizations stand to experience a step change in EHS performance, if these opportunities can be grasped.

As the business environment moves further into the digital age, leading organizations are leveraging existing and emerging technologies to improve their EHS outcomes. However, the majority of organizations are still reconciling how to translate these technological changes into improved performance. 

This article explores the challenges associated with digital initiatives as it relates to EHS, and how EHS professionals can better leverage digital technology to better manage risks and improve EHS outcomes.

Current state of play

Compared with other functions such as marketing and finance, the EHS profession has been slow to embrace and adopt digital technology. This is because organizations do not always fully understand the problem they are trying to solve, resulting in systemic-, people- or technology-related gaps in the solutions implemented. And where digital technologies are employed, they are often poorly designed, disconnected and implemented to solve isolated problems. 

Other barriers that could explain the lack of digital technology progress in this field include:

Focus on incidents

Traditionally, the management of EHS places a strong focus on measuring incidents. In a broader organizational context, incident datasets are limited and restrictive. Often, digital traces of incident causal factors are not identified. Even for those rare instances where data related to causal factors are identified, the profession grapples with the integrity and statistical rigor of incident causation models.

Small datasets

Despite the growing digitization of traditional EHS activities (e.g., inspections and incident reports), EHS datasets are still comparatively small. Safety activities alone are unlikely to ever provide big data at the organizational level. Rather, to generate higher value insights, EHS systems and professionals increase the number of end-users and sensors providing data. Through thoughtfully designed user interfaces, greater, high-quality data can be used to reduce EHS risks.

Non-digital backgrounds

EHS is a multidisciplinary profession. Therefore, EHS professionals come from diverse and varied backgrounds; these backgrounds rarely include digital, data or statistics-intensive occupations, such as finance or IT.

Failing to demonstrate the business case

Quantifying the benefits of digital initiatives, decisions or operations that lead to healthy and safe workplaces can be challenging. By failing to identify “what success looks like,” ongoing support for initiatives is more difficult to secure. In other words, comprehensive integration can remain elusive.

The trust deficit

Big data analytics and the use of other digital technologies raises several key areas of concern, including privacy, discrimination, security and quality. These risks can hinder initiatives, particularly in low trust workplaces.

Examples of successful digital technology EHS initiatives are beginning to emerge. These include:

Technology

EHS initiative

                                                                                                                                                                        Manual handling risk mitigation technology                                                                                                                                                                     

This is used to reduce the incidence of musculoskeletal injuries. By measuring “at risk” body movements, users can receive real-time alerts to mobile applications via ongoing data feeds. Tutorials are then provided to assist workers in their manual handling techniques.

Virtual reality (VR) technology

This is used to significantly improve training effectiveness. Technologies can  provide organizations with a high impact, scalable and efficient method to rapidly build the capabilities of workers, particularly those with less experience in high-risk environments.

Drones and robotics

These are used to perform jobs of the “three Ds”; dangerous, dirty and difficult. Such technology can access areas that are difficult to reach, such as those in emergency response scenarios. They can also be used to save significant periods of time, such as large site scanning in agriculture and mining applications.

Artificial intelligence (AI) bots

These bots are increasingly being used to automate complex tasks, and being embedded into many applications to guide users — including manual handling where an AI bot can coach workers through customized manual handling training.

Workplace analytics

This involves installing sensors into work stations in order to measure elements of performance. The data streams generated can be used to coach workers, and improve work station and interface design. “Ergonomic analytics” is being performed in transport, power and utilities, and manufacturing settings.

Biometrics

This involves the application of sensors onto workers themselves, in order to gather physical health, mental health and other metrics. For example, fatigue levels and body temperature can be measured in real time, with alerts designed to intervene and warn workers and their organizations. Manual handling sensors have been developed to measure “at risk” body movements, and provide workers with targeted coaching tutorials.

Hearables

These are ear-worn devices that assist users with hearing or audio-related tasks. An example of this is real-time language translation devices. This technology can be used to improve cross-cultural and language communications. With authentic, effective communication being a vital aspect of positive health and safety performance, this emerging technology could be used to significantly improve relationships.

It’s more than just technology

There are many examples of failed digital technology initiatives in the EHS industry. Poorly designed digital management systems that leave users frustrated or disappointed, automation that fails to yield efficiencies and shiny gadgets that quickly become redundant.

There is more to EHS digital technology initiatives than just the technology itself. Indeed, today many technologies have advanced so far that they are often not the weakest link. Instead, organizations are often burdened by “solution overload” or overwhelmed with “digital paralysis.” So many challenges today are met with an app designed to meet them. Today’s challenge is navigating, coordinating and integrating these multitude of solutions.

Furthermore, it is often other, non-digital factors that determine an initiative’s success, such as:

  • Full understanding of the problem to be solved, and therefore the requirements and acceptance criteria for new technologies
  • Business-led stakeholder consultation, involvement and education
  • Engagement of the required digital and subject matter knowledge and experience
  • Presence of a broader digital strategy that considers EHS needs and impacts
  • Procurement decisions (e.g., to hire or buy) that improve return on investment, to extract improved longevity and value from technologies

Navigating through these additional factors will increasingly become a core requirement for implementation of EHS technology or digital solutions, as EHS professionals strive to increase the benefits from, and limit the negative impacts of, digital technologies. 

What does successful EHS technology implementation look like? 

Successful EHS technology initiatives:

  • Fulfill key stakeholders’ expectations and objectives
  • Improve EHS performance
  • Effectively aid EHS risk management
  • Integrate into wider business operations
  • Yield responsive engagement and adoption across the organization

More specifically, this can result in outcomes such as:

  • Enhanced EHS risk management leading to lower injury rates and improved worker conditions
  • Increased efficiency and EHS process improvement, relieving resources to focus on more material matters
  • Improved decision-making, based on rigorous and real-time data to better allocate resources
  • Better workforce capability in EHS technology, resulting in transformative technology and problem-solving skills 

Where to from here?

It is a challenge for EHS functions to effectively harness digital technology for providing sustained improvements in EHS performance. But the EHS profession should do that to effectively contribute to the organizational success going forward.

With so many digital technologies emerging, knowing where to start can be difficult. There are no simple solutions; one size does not fit all and one shiny, new gadget is not going to lead to long-term improvement.

So, what should organizations do to successfully leverage digital technologies to better understand and manage EHS risks and reduce harm?

Organizations should: 

Have a clear understanding of the problem to be solved, and what “solved” looks like

Not unlike incidents, hazards or risks, without a clear understanding of the issue, the requirements cannot be effectively identified.

Assess their current EHS digital maturity

A leapfrog strategy rarely works in digital; without identifying the current state, it is difficult to map a clear, achievable progression plan. Mapping includes assessing the current digital systems as many organizations harbor unused, remnant software licenses and other legacy technologies.

Have a strategic view of digital technology

Design coordinated and integrated initiatives and effective change management processes that are designed to achieve organizational goals — not just solve a specific problem in isolation.

Seek integrated, automated EHS digital systems and solutions

These should support real-time, customizable and accurate data for informed decision-making. Systems need to be robust (so they can be trusted) and engaging (so the workforce wants to use them). 

Invest in digital capability and leverage external support

Nobody knows it all, and it is not the role of EHS professionals to know it all. Instead those seeking to leverage digital technology to improve EHS should  understand their needs and strategically engage support as required. This includes seeking out trusted advisors that understand the elements required for success. Accessing the right support to achieve successful initiatives, and to build an integrated digital architecture, is critical.

As this article shows, successful implementation of digital innovation requires more than just technology. It requires three elements — subject matter knowledge and experience, technology that works and a human-centered approach. 

EY EHS teams work with organizations to help adapt their approach and proactively leverage digital technology to improve EHS outcomes.

Certain services and tools may be restricted for EY audit clients and their affiliates to comply with applicable independence standards. Please ask your EY contact for further information.

Summary

Leading organizations are leveraging existing and emerging technologies to improve their EHS outcomes. However, the majority of organizations are still reconciling how to translate these technological changes into improved performance. This article explores the challenges associated with digital initiatives as it relates to EHS, and how EHS professionals can better leverage digital technology to better manage risks and improve EHS outcomes. 

About this article

By

Rebecca Dabbs

Ernst & Young Australia Climate Change and Sustainability Services Partner

Transforming the way businesses are thinking about health and safety. Passionate about helping women succeed. Accountant turned health and safety professional. Role model. Mother to two children.