Big Data and the Big Change for EHS Managers
“Technology will change this profession and make people focus on more valuable tasks.”
I’m sure you heard some variation of this sentence. Replace “technology” with “big data” or “automation” or something else; and replace “profession” with any role and you heard this type of sentence multiple times.
It’s easy to react to this sentence with cynicism and say that it’s just a dubious way of saying that jobs will be changed, or worse, lost. But in many cases the sentence is accurate. For many jobs, technology will not eliminate positions or lead to a negative work environment. Rather, job descriptions will change and people will have to adapt.
What Is the EHS Manager Here For, Anyway?
Let’s turn our focus to EHS.
Industry 4.0, also known as the fourth industrial revolution, is seeing the emergence of “smart factories” where cyber-physical systems monitor factory processes. Through the Internet of Things (IoT), physical assets and systems communicate with each other and with humans in real-time. Other technologies part of Industry 4.0 include big data, analytics, cloud computing, drones, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, etc.
Big data, analytics and artificial intelligence will impact EHS managers. Imagine a world where an intelligent EHS software platform can analyze an incident and recommend action plans and controls based on similar, past incidents. Imagine that data is fed into the system by sensors and drones, and by thousands of field workers through mobile devices.
All of this is actually happening right now. No need to imagine it. If you’re an EHS manager, you may ask yourself “What am I here for?” The answer is “Something much more important."
More Psychological, Less Logistical
The answer I gave previously is based on something I read in Safety+Health magazine on technology, big data and worker safety. In the article, Keith Bowers, founder of Bowers Management Analytics, says:
“Big data won’t replace safety professionals, but it will free them to do what they do best…As big data becomes more important, soft skills become more important for safety professionals. Safety professionals don’t need to become techies. They need to become better at what they took that job for: To develop culture, keep people safe, and develop an appropriate environment and the appropriate type of organization to reduce incidents.”
I put the most important part of the text in bold. Big data, analytics and artificial intelligence will not make the EHS manager’s job obsolete, nor does it mean that they have to become techies, as Bowers points out. Rather, EHS managers will focus more on safety culture. The EHS manager’s role will become more psychological and less logistical. It will become more human and less clerical.
Humans Aren’t Perfect. Neither Are Algorithms
The EHS manager will spend much less time processing data on incidents, near misses and observations. Technology will do that for them. But whereas big data and artificial intelligence (which uses algorithms) can help predict and prevent incidents and remove many administrative tasks, they can’t help improve safety culture on their own.
Algorithms may be able to go through incidents and identify recurring conditions that are causing the most risks. But algorithms can’t motivate humans, modify their attitudes and behaviors, or promote values so that they’re adopted in hearts and minds. Only EHS managers and other professionals can do that.
If you’re an EHS manager, big data and technology will finally free you to spend more time on safety culture. You will be able to focus on advancing a set of shared beliefs, values, attitudes and customs with regards to workplace safety.
Technology will help make the EHS manager’s role more human.
This article is a benefit of Enablon’s sponsorship of NAEM's 2019 EHS Operational Excellence Conference.