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Environmental Health and Safety vs. Emerging Technologies

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Environmental Health and Safety vs. Emerging Technologies

2030.

A year that looks so distant, but when I checked the calendar today, it was shocking to see that the first month of 2018 is already gone – which means 2030 is not so far away after all.

Actually, 2030 happens to be the year set by the UN for the global attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Brilliant idea!

Why am I obsessed with dates you ask? Because it refers to the future – and the future brings rapid changes more than we can handle; specifically speaking, technological changes.

As much as we all are worried how emerging technologies would change the way we live and work – and probably cause an increase in unemployment due to, you know, robots, it is equally important to understand the role these changes would play in our workplace health and safety. Indeed, the future of environmental health and safety (EHS) is intertwined with emerging technologies.

Lately, there has been massive advancement in the deployment of technologies for EHS applications, which is a good thing. Top of the list – and my favourite – is the use of drones for high-risk inspections and emergency response; there is virtual reality hazard simulation, which gives you a feel of how it looks like when things go wrong, without actually going wrong, and on the Safety in Design (SiD) front, there are fail-safe automated processes, as well as connected equipment.

 

We are in for exciting times

For instance, Cummins, a leading manufacturer of industrial engines, power generating sets, and trucks, recently rolled out Over the Air (OTA) software updates for most of their new truck engine lineup. The idea is to reduce downtime (service visits and all) and increase reliability and optimal engine performance, great!

I’m not an alarmist, but imagine the catastrophic consequence of a hacker gaining remote access to the engine of a moving truck loaded with dangerous goods….

And no, I’m not just saying, this is a very real possibility. Research hackers already tried it successfully with a Tesla Model S, remotely gaining control of the brakes, lights and mirrors! Obviously, Tesla must have fixed the bug, but the “beauty” of hacking is that there is always a new vulnerability to exploit – which is why you get those pesky, but necessary software updates from your PC manufacturer.

As another example, the Automatic Electronic Defibrillator is a great device; used to stabilize a victim of a sudden heart attack before medical help arrives. Now imagine this device, failing to work in the middle of an emergency because its firmware has become suddenly infected with a virus. Someone dies.

What does this all means?

For safety professionals:

Good news, machines are not about to take your job – yet. But the modern safety professional needs to know more than occupational health hazard and controls; she needs to know what to do when a technology being used by her organization suddenly creates new hazards.

In addition, a versatile EHS professional is an asset. Not saying you should take over the jobs of the engineer and the accountant, but having commercial awareness and an insight into engineering processes puts you at the forefront of managing your organizational risks effectively, and that, makes you virtually indispensable.

For businesses

It is crucial that modern businesses adopt new technologies in order to stay ahead of the competition. Likewise, a significant investment should be made into how to manage the unintended consequences of such technologies.

Rather than isolate risk based on categories; financial, legal, occupational health, environmental, etc…. Organizations should embrace enterprise risk management approach which integrates all potential risk faced by the organization and provides a resource efficient means of managing them.

For society

As a people, we should always request for accountability from government. Professional associations, civil groups, and even individuals have a right to hold government accountable with regard to the formulation, implementation, and enforcement of various technological policies.

In the same way, communities, investors and other stakeholders have a duty to engage organizations in dialogue so as to ensure there’s continually improved corporate performance regarding environmental health and safety as it interfaces with emerging technologies.

For government

Policies should always address modern realities, ever so true with technology that changes by the nanoseconds. Government agencies saddled with policy making should consult with subject matter experts when making technology related policies. An arbitrary approach is a recipe for disaster – literally.

In the same vein (cable most appropriate) enforcement of tech compliance must be a critical focus of any responsible government. I’m not suggesting stifling technological advancement, but it should be carefully monitored to determine how it affects other things.

For instance, when Roomba, a U.S. manufacturer of robotic vacuum cleaner decided to produce a similarly robotic lawnmower, it was challenged by National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). The reason simply being that the Roomba intends to use the same radio frequency that the astronomy agency uses to detect the presence of methanol in space, which is very crucial to safety in space.

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