This blog was written by Christina Withrow, Finalist of the 2016 3M New Occupational Health and Safety Professional Essay Award contest. Christina is an Industrial Hygienist at Mission Technologies, Inc. at NASA LRC. This essay was prepared or accomplished by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the 3M or the 3M Personal Safety Division.
If you’d like more information on our Occupational Health & Safety New Professional Essay Award program, visit the 3M New Professional Award Page.
ST. PAUL, Minn. – If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that nearly everything we humans do is aimed at making some other job easier. When the first wheel was invented, the neighbors probably pointed and laughed at the person pushing it around until the time came to haul a woolly mammoth back to camp. We constantly try to remove ourselves from boring and dangerous work, and the rate of technological advancement grows faster every day. Automated processes surround us, from stop lights to vending machines, and watching those simple machines perform simple tasks has dimmed our imaginations to the current state of automation. October 21, 2015 – the “future” from the 1989 film Back to the Future II – passed by, and the internet was disappointed that we still don’t have hover boards, flying cars, or self-lacing shoes.
These are not disappointing times, though. Something brilliant is happening right now. We are teaching machines to think. You can train a robot named Baxter to do your job just by letting him “watch” you perform tasks (Pierce, 2013). Tech giant Google has developed systems that allow cars to drive without a human operator, and have done so with a stellar safety record. Google cars have driven themselves over 1.5 million miles on public roads, and they are driving today in Washington, Arizona, California, and Texas (Google, 2016). Interestingly, these vehicles are designed to learn as they go, improving over time. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg commented on developing machine learning technology by saying, “So the basic human senses like seeing, hearing, language, core things that we do. I think it’s possible to get to the point in the next five to 10 years where we have computer systems that are better than people at each of those things.” (Popper, 2016). He wasn’t saying that our computers will be smarter than us overall, but that they will be better at each specific task than we can hope to achieve. This type of innovation can have monumental implications for the future. What does this mean for occupational safety and health?
The landscape of workplaces will start to look different as computers begin to master routine tasks normally performed by people. This is not a bad thing. We can use them in highly hazardous situations instead of placing people in harm’s way. Why pay to train a technician to perform asbestos abatement and send them into a hazardous area when a company can spend less than one year of that worker’s salary on a robot with no lungs or skin to protect?
It may be hard to imagine that a robot can accomplish a task such as asbestos abatement. That’s because when we think of robots at work, we tend to see an image of an auto assembly line, with its bolted-down, single-function automatons. Unlike automatons, thinking machines like Baxter have the ability to adapt and learn. Because of this adaptability, it will be safer for humans interacting with them. In the past, people have been injured by automatons in the workplace. Those machines were programmed for one set of movements and did not adjust if people got in the way. New robots will have the ability to recognize obstacles like humans and change their course. It is fascinating to watch Boston Dynamics’ LS3 robot adjust to dynamic situations and make corrections. A researcher shoves LS3 and “he” stumbles, but finds his balance and does not fall (Boston Dynamics, 2016). LS3 shows one example of new robots’ adaptability.
Thanks to an emerging concept called the “internet of things”, the days of bean counting may be over. The concept involves sensors or electronic materials integrated with physical objects, allowing communication through existing internet connections (Chen, Lee, Shu, & Crespi, 2016). This is already in place with smart thermostats and smart washers and dryers. We can harness this capability for the benefit of occupational health and safety professionals, enabling us to spend more time assessing situations and controlling hazards and less time organizing data. Instead of sending an IH to investigate a foul odor coming from a basement in a HAZMAT storage facility, sensors can be installed at key points. The IH will just open up a browser window to identify atmospheric constituents. Smart devices can sense, upload, and organize data remotely, and the technology is advancing toward true affordability.
The miniaturization of technology will also be huge for safety professionals. In this author’s personal experience working in U.S. Naval nuclear propulsion, some of the radiation monitoring equipment was heavy and cumbersome. Sometimes a technician has to lug a huge neutron detector down metal ladders inside of ships to measure very low levels of neutron radiation.
Today’s instruments weigh up to 20 pounds, and for the technicians who have to carry instruments and clipboards to document results, new technology is warmly welcomed. One great example of the miniaturization of technology comes from Konkuk University in the Republic of Korea. Researchers at this University have created an “e-textile” using graphene oxide that enables gas sensing of nitrogen dioxide through a small piece of cloth embroidered into the user’s clothing (Kundu, 2015).
The focus of OSH personnel may start to shift from human safety to product stewardship as the workforce leaves the plant and moves to the control room to “supervise” the robots on the factory floor. With less time spent on administrative functions, OSH professionals will have more time to focus on the artistry of the work, and we will have copious amounts of well-curated data available to identify and mitigate risks. The future for occupational health and safety looks vastly different, but bright as we enter the robotics revolution.