Empowering Workers in an Uncertain World
Should we not create a future where equipment enhances a worker’s ability to perform in demanding environments?
- By Kevin Mitchell
- Sep 01, 2020
As everyone adjusts to the ‘new normal’ of social distancing and frequent handwashing, it can be tough to look beyond the immediate crisis. But as we cautiously exit lockdown and restart businesses, people are facing a very different world. It may seem a little premature to find lessons learned from the pandemic, but one truth the crisis has exposed is the essential nature of certain professions and the importance of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to their work.
We have relied heavily on our frontline workers, who have stepped up during this time of need—not just our healthcare professionals, but also the people who police our streets, build our homes, supply the food we eat, manufacture essential goods and deliver our mail (to name a few). These are the essential workers who ensured the rest of us could remain safe, healthy and productive during the lockdown.
One recurring story during the crisis has been centered around PPE for these essential workers. Unfortunately, the narrative has been centered on the inadequacy of the supply chain, the resultant global panic-purchasing and, ironically, images of injuries sustained by the prolonged wearing of safety gear.
In response to this, we have seen a truly incredible collective effort—many available 3D printers began producing protective face shields, and many dormant sewing machines were dusted off and put to work assembling facemasks. While this positive social engagement has been heart-warming to witness, for frontline workers, PPE is a very serious topic.
Having the appropriate PPE to do their jobs in safety and comfort is a necessity for all workers. Do we not owe these people more than the basic standard? Should our collective PPE goals not be more ambitious? Better and smarter PPE could be created that goes beyond keeping our essential workers safe but also that enhances their abilities.
To help themselves emerge from the COVID-19 economic slowdown, some industries are looking to increased automation. When it comes to frontline workers, this is missing an opportunity.
In situations that require high levels of interaction, people still have clear advantages over robots and automated systems alone—advantages that should be enhanced and augmented through smarter PPE. People’s innate situational awareness and ability to react to changing circumstances enable rapid diagnosis and response to unexpected scenarios. Human empathy and adaptability are vital when reacting in an emergency, especially one involving other people. Human problem-solving, creativity and the ability to learn new skills are ideally suited to the rapidly changing industries of tomorrow. Instead of focusing on replacing essential workers, the industry should be looking to technology and purposeful design to elevate their potential—a symbiotic relationship between humans and technology.
PPE ranges from safety gloves to glasses to work boots and everything in between. Most of these products are currently “dumb,” or designed for a singular purpose and rarely considered again.
As many industries embrace smart sensors and connected technology for data-driven decision-making, now is the time to explore how it can improve PPE. This would mean adopting holistic approaches to new product development: creating smarter PPE that is connected to each other and to the cloud; improving safety and productivity by enabling constant two-way communication; and real-time continuous monitoring of workers and their equipment. Growth of 5G, miniaturization of sensors, IIoT and voice commands are all accessible solutions that will serve essential workers and their environments.
Particularly when compared to the homemade solutions our frontline workers are currently utilizing, this might sound like a fantasy. But if we dig a little deeper, some companies are already unlocking the potential of smart PPE. We are seeing the release of highly innovative connected products by both start-ups and established multinationals aimed at the future worker, from intelligent ear protection to smart safety glasses, or those who have developed PPE wearables and sensor-embedded solutions for firefighters, including a gas mask with a thermal camera. The steady drip of smart PPE products into the market is beginning to accelerate.
To ensure a high level of adoption across industries the next generation of PPE must improve the safety of workers while considering the human factors of use. Each device must be quick and easy to don, comfortable to wear for long periods of time and instill a feeling of security and confidence. This means designing these products with sensory awareness—not just functional gear, but equipment that empowers and inspires people. Appealing to the human senses helps build emotional connections between people and the products they experience, adding joy to mundane tasks. This means making PPE that people are eager to engage with.
People are already craving connectivity in their working lives, making their days more efficient and safer. Smart PPE goes beyond the frontline workers with significant advantages to people who manage those teams. Connection to insights gleaned from connected equipment unlocks better means to monitor and track progress. It can give insight to a team’s health as well as productivity, and artificial intelligence can facilitate incredibly accelerated decision-making, enhancing even the most expert workers’ lives.
Imagine a future where the worker and his or her PPE work harmoniously together, where every item of smart protective gear provides meaningful input to improve the safety, productivity and wellbeing of the wearer. We need to strive for a future where protective equipment considers a worker’s health and emotional state, constantly communicating with the environment to ensure the worker is prepared for any eventuality. Even more so, we need gear that enhances physical or cognitive abilities.
A Brighter Tomorrow
As we shake off the stasis of lockdown and prepare to reignite our economies, we should not disregard the moment the world understood the meaning of essential. We need to remember how our essential workers rose to the occasion. Using whatever PPE was available, they stepped up when we needed them most.
We can build a better future for all workers. By considering how we harness technology in meaningful ways we can augment and improve people’s lives, equipping them with new tools to enhance their ability to perform in their demanding environments. Now is the opportunity to reimagine what PPE can be, and how it can elevate the unique abilities of our workers to lead safer, happier and more productive lives.
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.