In safety, we spend a lot of time observing current events and reacting to past events, but what happens when we look to the future? When speaking of daily safety operations, looking to the future helps us to plan ahead, be prepared, and to not be blindsided by unexpected events. The same holds true with looking at safety as a whole. Where are we now and where are we headed? How will companies address safety as we move forward? What will the government do in terms of regulation? How will safety professionals be successful in their careers?
Near Future vs. the Extended Outlook
First, to discuss the future we need to understand what future we’re considering. Near-future discussions are going to be much more specific because a lot of groundwork has already been laid for any upcoming changes. Let’s look at the state of OSHA for instance. For the prior eight years, there has been a run on rulemaking and an increase in enforcement. But, that’s the past. Now, as tends to happen when the Presidency changes hands between parties, there will be a new approach. Historically, under a Republican presidency, OSHA funds shift from enforcement to outreach. Funds will shift from paying for OSHA inspectors to inspect jobsites and penalize employers to finding more ways to educate workers and help employers achieve compliance.
This has already begun. Many new standards passed in the Obama administration were stalled by the Trump administration, under the auspices of determining their merit. Some will move forward after a brief delay, others may very well wither away. Some rules affected by this were beryllium dust, silica, and the electronic recordkeeping rule. However, the beryllium standard is now in effect, and silica is still scheduled to go into effect this September. The electronic recordkeeping rule is supposed to go into effect on December 1, by which time employers who are covered by this rule must input their 2016 injury and illness data.
But that’s all near-term. What is the future of safety when we start looking months and years out?
Isn’t technology the first thing we always think of when we begin discussing the future? Well, rightfully so. While emerging technologies may serve to make the safety profession more efficient, at the same time, they present new, complex challenges that possibly never even needed to be considered before. Nanotechnology has necessitated an entirely new way to approach previously non-existent dangers in the workplace – ones we may not be able to see, or feel. The proliferation of the smart phone has challenged us to find new ways to prevent worker distraction on the job and behind the wheel. In these instances, new technologies are forcing safety professionals to think “outside the box” – which often brings many outside their comfort zone. However, on the other end of the spectrum, that same smart phone is making a safety professional’s job easier. From keeping regulations at a safety professional’s fingertips, to offering apps for everything from SDS management, to measuring noise, to checking the angle of a ladder, smart phones have begun to compact all those books and instruments we used to need to carry into one small, convenient piece of equipment (though, if you’re going to use one of these smart phone apps, understand what it can be used for and what its limitations are). In addition, smart phones are allowing us to keep in better contact with remote employees to ensure that they are ok. From using them for simple text check-ins at set intervals, to monitoring employees’ vitals, to GPS tracking, smart phones provide the potential for a great deal of safety checks.
Personal Protective Equipment is another place where new technologies are constantly coming into play. Just look at the difference between the old body belt and a current full-body harness. Look at old lanyards vs SRLs. Look at old work gloves vs ones made for specific tasks, like cut-resistant gloves. Look at steel-toed boots vs composite toe. Look at the need to carry multiple monitors and to test gases in certain orders vs the 4 and 5-gas meters in use today. PPE (and other equipment) is always evolving. Manufacturers are constantly trying to find ways to make equipment more comfortable, lighter-weight, better looking, and more effective in order to increase the likelihood that workers will actually put it on and keep it on.
Training and operations will also, in the not too distant future, begin to benefit from another type of technology that gets a lot of press – virtual and augmented reality. Whether it’s a Google Glass type of device walking somebody through the steps of a new manufacturing procedure or teaching a new employee how to walk through some troubleshooting techniques, or a virtual reality construction site on which students can perform a virtual safety audit, these technologies are finding more and more practical uses every day.
Prevention vs Enforcement
There was a time that safety professionals might as well have been safety cops. The idea was to come out and drop the hammer on somebody, throw them off a jobsite, make them understand that their nonsense will not be tolerated, all the while setting an example for the rest of the workers – this is what could happen to you! Luckily, more and more organizations and professionals have abandoned that approach. While there will always be situations in which a safety professional will need to put his or her foot down, most have embraced a proactive approach over a reactive approach. Most have embraced collaboration over enforcement and punishment. A safety professional is much more likely to take a safety violator aside these days to educate them in what they’ve done wrong and how to correct it, than they are to throw them off a job. Companies have started to understand that they have a responsibility to properly train their people and not just figure that they’ll somehow learn on the job. Companies are getting better at planning ahead, performing job safety analyses, including safety professionals in planning meetings, and more.
Companies will also begin to get more proactive when it comes to their employees’ well-being. With an increase in suicide among veterans as well as a few high-profile celebrities, not to mention the rash of gun violence in recent years, mental health has come to the forefront of public discussion. People are becoming educated. Doctors are pushing for better care. Insurance companies are being forced to provide better coverage (though there is, admittedly, a long way to go). This is important in safety because it is estimated that in the US, $100B is lost every year by employers due to untreated mental illnesses. Employers will, with more education, begin to look out for the well-being of their employees from a mental health standpoint instead of just a physical standpoint. Proactive programs to keep people mentally healthy and to provide early treatment for those suffering will become more and more commonplace. It is important to note that mental health issues are already covered by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and employers could already be required to make accommodations for employees suffering from mental health issues.
The More Things Change…
…the more they stay the same. Unfortunately, in some aspects, the future of safety will look very much like today. Some companies will refuse to improve. In some instances, they’ll get away with it as they slip under the radar. In others, they will fold under the financial stress of OSHA violations or the cost of fatalities. One just has to look at the list of top ten OSHA violations over the last decade to see that no matter what we’ve done, “Falls to a Lower Level” has continued to lead the pack. In construction, some companies will continue to pay lip service to “Safety First” while defying that mantra every time the schedule gets behind or the budget gets tight. While some companies will embrace new, engaging forms of training that increase employee knowledge retention, others will be unwilling to spend the extra money or abandon the PowerPoint lectures they’ve used for so long. There will always be resistance to change. The goal is to minimize that resistance or to move the herd so far ahead that those trailing are still advancing significantly.
Let’s be honest: the future is here. Even though some of these things aren’t quite here yet, you can see the fingerprints of their early stages if you look hard enough. We can fight change or embrace it. The technology that will make our jobs more complex is going to come whether we want it to or not, so why not also accept the technology that’s going to make our jobs easier or more effective? All it takes is one person with vision to turn a backward-looking organization into a forward-thinking one.