Health and Safety Industry’s Technology Challenge

Article by Ruby Gill

Do you remember the days before iPhones? They came out just over seven years ago and it’s hard for some to imagine a life without them.

With oodles of knowledge, tools and entertainment on those little portable devices, we can all politely avoid awkward eye contact and small talk with strangers. That’s one problem solved.

Disruption is what happens when a new idea or a different way of doing something radically changes the status quo. Disruptive tech examples include smartphones, the Internet and the personal computer. The world has completely changed since they arrived.

Recently I met with Tony Seba, a disruption expert based in Silicon Valley, California. Tony is a lecturer in entrepreneurship, disruption, and clean energy at Stanford University and has authored books on clean disruption technology. Tony is also on the board of CLOUD M.

“There are many technologies that will disrupt not just health and safety, but essentially every single industry over the next 10–15 years,” says Tony.

In the last century or so, health and safety has been limited to purely legislation and best practice guidelines. Do you think this is enough to keep people safe?

No, this is enough to comply with guidelines, it’s not enough to keep people safe. It’s not about the legislation; it’s about the data and what as a society we are willing to tolerate in terms of deaths and safety.

What is health and safety like in the USA?

The USA is as good as most OECD countries, but we are really not leading the charge anymore. While a lot of progress has been made since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was first enacted in 1970, over the last few years that progress has essentially stopped.

We have dramatic differences in safety data among states, which shows that the federal government is not investing in enforcement of the legislation we already have.

 North Dakota has a fatality rate comparable to least-developed countries with 17.7 deaths per 100,000 workers. – Death on the Job, AFL-CIO

The new reforms in New Zealand will introduce tougher consequences to bad health and safety practices. Do you think we are heading in the right direction?

The attention we are paying to safety is good but legislation has unintended consequences. What we don’t want policy makers to do is to say “we’ve passed legislation, we’re done with that, let’s move on.

However, in the USA, there are only enough inspectors for federal OSHA to inspect workplaces once every 139 years and for some states OSHA plans to inspect workplaces once every 79 years.

If legislation isn’t enough, what current technology assists in health and safety?

The smartphone is a disruptive technology that is in the hands of almost everybody. I think smartphones can move health and safety from the existing top-down and managerial model to a bottom-up model where workers are empowered to lead safety.

We can use smartphone technology, the cloud and apps to create real-time safety-analysis. We now have data that the workers themselves generate. We can flip the architecture of safety.

What are some other technologies that are becoming available that could help with health and safety?

One example that is not yet cheap enough but it will be over the next few years, is LiDAR –laser and radar. LiDAR is 3D visualisation technology that self-driving cars use. Three years ago it cost $70,000 but next year it will cost just $1,000 and in five years it will likely be $100. LiDAR will be cheap enough to have on a cell phone so workers will be able to make a 3D model of their environment 24/7.

How will this change the whole concept of safety?

Imagine a construction site with ten workers or a thousand workers, each one of whom will be generating a 360-degree, 3D movie with the 3D data of the construction site in real-time. That was not possible just over two years ago.

A trained analyst watching that movie could catch hazards that workers might miss. You could find patterns that would be undetectable otherwise. LiDAR is so accurate it can even detect wind direction and speed, which the human eye can miss.

Some other technologies that are sweeping the world include 3D printing and drones. We would need a few more articles to go into those in detail, but can you tell us some interesting things about them?

We are going to be 3D printing houses, electric cars, and furniture. These houses will become active energy producers harnessing solar power. They will store and trade energy along with vehicles.

Drones are already being used in construction to provide a birds-eye view of construction sites. When equipped with high-resolution video or LiDAR, drones can inspect areas that may be hazardous such as bridges and rooftops.

How vital is it that a country like New Zealand should invest in these new technologies?

It is essential for this country to get in on these technologies now. These technologies are on the cusp of disrupting many markets like energy, transportation, and construction. This is not in the future, this is now. All these tech markets are growing exponentially and will reach critical mass over the next 5–15 years.

Do you think that there is enough time for a small country like New Zealand to switch to these new technologies? 

I think that as a country, you have two choices. You lead or you follow. That is a decision that every society needs to make. For many of these technologies, there is still time to get on board and to lead and New Zealand can do that.

New Zealand has the technological savvy and the educational institutions. What it is lacking so far are those policy and financial mechanisms to help entrepreneurs developing these technologies.

All this new technology is quite complicated and fast evolving. If I was a business owner and I wanted to know more, where would I start? 

It is pretty daunting, even for those of us in the industry. There are maybe a dozen technologies that we should follow and be well aware of as both businesses and countries. Some I have mentioned already. 3D printing, machine learning, 3D visualisation, sensors, mobile internet, the cloud, big data, unmanned aerial vehicles, solar, etc.

Those are what we should be paying attention to. I post many videos from my classes at Stanford and from keynotes and everyone is welcome to watch. Here’s a video that I recommend you watch:Anticipating & Leading Market Disruption. 

Why is technology so vital to health and safety?

These disruptive technologies will provide exponentially increasing troves of data that will allow us to analyse every aspect of the workplace. In the short term, these data and technologies will help us minimise and prevent hazards and incidents, and save lives.

The more we learn, the more appropriate data we get, the more we improve safety-oriented technologies, the more likely it is that we will be able to achieve orders of magnitude gains. We could, for instance, run simulations of different workplace designs and their potential impacts on health and safety before a single brick has been laid. This would disrupt the existing paradigm of occupational health and safety.

Is there any further advice that you can give for somebody who wants to start making changes right now?

As a national policy maker, you should prepare your country. Make sure that it has an entrepreneurial ecosystem and a top-notch educational system, especially in science and technology.

We need policy makers to be aware of the disruptive tech that is coming. They need to be well aware of the ways that they can change and enhance the safety of the workers.

As a business owner, you should be well aware that you are going to be disrupted. There is no doubt about that. The question is not if, but when, how and by which set of technologies. You need to anticipate disruptions. Only by anticipating disruptions can you make the proper strategic decisions: do I lead? Do I follow? Do I get out? Choosing to wait is choosing to be disrupted.


Tony will be back in New Zealand in March 2015 working with Callaghan Innovation.

Find out more, in depth details about what was discussed in this article by exploring his websitewww.tonyseba.com. Alternatively, you can follow him on twitter, or watch his keynote talks on Youtube, including one hosted by Auckland Conversations.

*This article was originally published on CLOUD M’s website, and is reproduced here in its entirety. 

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