OHS and Tim White

The latest in our series of profiles on researchers who are involved with occupational health and safety research is Dr Tim White.  He holds the degrees of Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) and Doctor of Philosophy from the University of New South Wales (UNSW). His most recent appointment was as Lecturer and Researcher in Mechanical Design at UNSW.

After 10 years of working casually as a consultant while also holding salaried positions, Dr White founded Forensic Mechanical Engineers in 2013 and now works full time as a forensic engineer and expert witness. He is based in Bathurst, NSW but travels extensively for work, often flying himself to regional locations.

What attracted you to looking at workplace health and safety? Did you fall into it or always have an interest?

I feel like I just fell into it, although now that I look back, I suppose that my career progression was reasonably intuitive. A farming background prior to my first engineering degree (and subsequent time in industry) meant that I was never going  to be content doing the same thing as most of my peers. Although it was not a main consideration at the time, the PhD and progression into academia was what ultimately equipped me with the ability to now work flexibly in a role where I feel as though I am – clichés aside – doing something interesting as well as making a difference.

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Hi-viz and safety – it’s all about the context

High visibility clothing has spread from the work site to the public arena and, as such, has complicated the reasons for hi-viz clothing.  However the fundamental underpinning of high-viz is to contrast against the surrounding environment. This contrast does not only relate to clothing but also signage.

Several years ago, a couple of women from Tasmania visited the offices of SafetyAtWorkBlog to discuss the practicality of hi-viz vests for toddlers and small children.  The hi-viz logic of the work site is easily applied to the public park or farms.  A contrasting colour to the trees or bushland would make it easier to identify someone, like a wayward child.  On a work site, the hi-viz is more about identifying a hazard, whether that be a person, an overhead wire or a work boundary.

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OHS and Marcus Cattani

Marcus Cattani at the cricket
Marcus Cattani at the cricket

Dr Marcus Cattani, is a Senior Lecturer in Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) within the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University and a leading Australian OHS consultant. SafetyAtWorkBlog endeavoured to glimpse the person behind the qualifications by asking Dr Cattani some safety-related questions and he was kind enough to respond.

What attracted you to looking at workplace health and safety?  Did you fall into it or always have an interest?

I was lucky enough to find out about WHS when I was around 20 years old, during my environmental science based college course.  At that time, in the late 1980’s the trend for people finishing my course was to work in asbestos management or in Council environmental teams, neither of which really excited me!

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Health, safety and climate change

Sydney, Australia - October 19, 2016: Construction workers set up scaffolding in a construction site.
Sydney, Australia – October 19, 2016: Construction workers set up scaffolding in a construction site.

In a small article on the ABC news site, Professor Peng Bi of the University of Adelaide said occupational health and safety laws needed a review to accommodate the changing climate and

“I reckon some regulations should be set up to get employers to pay [fresh] attention to the occupational health and safety of their employees…”

Contrary to Professor Peng Bi’s request, Australian worksites have done much to accommodate the changing climate conditions and to maintain productivity, primarily, in relation to excessive heat exposure by working within the existing occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation.  This is not to say more should not be done.

The risks associated with working in heat are well established and recognised by Safe Work Australia and State safety regulators but the advice often focusses on personal changes such as ensuring there is adequate hydration or that jobs should be rotated or that long-sleeved shorts are worn.  The amplification of these conditions due to climate change is foreseeable so what should employers, companies and OHS regulators do?

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Knowledge remains power, even in the age of robots

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A recent safety convention in Australia had as its theme “Disruption”, a fashionable term that can mean many things to many people.  Perhaps why it is a marketer’s dream word.  The initial session of the convention was unnerving because speakers were saying that the current jobs and activities of safety professionals will be undertaken by artificial intelligence in a decade.  This change is not a coordinated strategy but bits and pieces of this change/threat keep appearing, the latest was in The Guardian on 25 September 2016 in an article called “You’d better listen up“.

That article, ostensibly about headphones included this workplace application:

“Bragi has recently announced a partnership with IBM where it hopes to deliver the massive processing power and cognitive capacity of the Watson AI system via its devices. At the moment, it is exploring how these capabilities could be employed in the workplace. For example, maintenance workers could describe an issue, Watson recognises the problem and talks them through the solution – without their having to refer to manuals or computers, keeping their hands free for the repair. Similarly, doctors could get help with recognising rare conditions and their conversation with a patient would be recorded and saved to the cloud for their records.”

Futuristic Engineer in yellow hardhat holding tablet

The safety benefits of this contraption is obvious – a manual on call  and responsive to vocalised questions.  As anyone with a Glaswegian accent trying to set up voicemail in Australia will know, vocal recognition still has a long way to go unless the world is able to be un-Babelled and speak with one accent. (Please not Australian, as artificial intelligences (AI) would struggle with the constant answering of “Yeah – Nah”)  Voice recognition software has needed long hours of training to be functioning at a basic level.

Thankfully that tech challenge can be left to the technologists.  What is more important, and could provide safety professionals with a future, is the back-end of the application of Watson.  Any AI needs knowledge so that the advice it provides to the user/listener/engager is accurate and relevant to the situation, literally, at hand.  AIs will not create their own knowledge, at least in the short term, and so will rely on safety professionals and others to provide the knowledge to the software.

Safety professionals are unlikely to provide knowledge of a specific process but will likely be called on to add value to the mechanical work activity or discussion.  Occupational health and safety (OHS) is likely to be one of the assessment criteria used by the AI.  For instance, in the response to the work activity quoted above the maintenance worker will want to know how to do something.  The OHS contribution to the AI’s response would be to ensure that the task is undertaken safely, in a safe environment or with the suitable protective equipment or the correct tool.

The convention was shown video of an AI that verified that workers were dressed appropriately for the work conditions before allowing access to site.  This would replace those OHS consultants who like to be safety police but the situation described in the video was understandable.  There are rules for specific PPE prior to entering a workplace with hazards that could be reduced by wearing the PPE.  No PPE, no site access.  The argument in favour of AI applications would be that the safety professional could attend to more important activities.  The sad reality is that some safety professionals rely on this type of activity to give their jobs worth.

The reality of AI in OHS cannot be avoided.  Those who advocate for disruption argue that disruption provides opportunities for the creative, the agile and the clear thinkers but it is also the case that many safety professionals will be left behind like Neanderthals to Hom (OHS) Sapiens.

Kevin Jones