Do open plan offices and sit/stand desks create as many problems as they solve?

The mainstream media regularly includes articles and, increasingly, advertorials, about the modern workplace, usually office buildings, that are designed to foster creativity, communication, productivity and improve physical health.  In many of these workplaces, it quickly becomes apparent that there are never enough meeting rooms for confidential discussions, making the coffee shop in the foyer or a nearby building, essential venues for conversations that would, in the past, be conducted in an office.

It also does not take long for a lot of the workers to be at their desks wearing earbuds or headphones in order to negate the noise that the modern workplace allows and creates.  This need for isolation and concentration is contrary to the intentions of the office designers.  It is not simply a reflection of the modern ipod technology but a human desire for privacy, focus, diligence and productivity.  New research  seems to indicate that the situation is not helped by sit/stand desks.

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New program launched that forecasts safety and risk levels

Almost every occupational health and safety (OHS) inquiry by the Australian Government has acknowledged the inadequacies of data on workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths.  The 1995 Inquiry into Occupational Health and Safety (Volume 2) (pages 377-378) by the (then) Industry Commission  acknowledged the lack of empirical evidence and made up its own.  The situation has barely improved.

However a new project by West Australian academic,

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Tinnitus can be a safety hazard

I have tinnitus. There I have outed myself along with 18% of men and 14% of women, according to a research report* from Hearing Research journal published recently. For those unfamiliar with tinnitus it is a persistent buzzing or ringing in one’s ears usually caused by exposure to loud noise. It is relevant to occupational health and safety (OHS) in a number of ways:

  • It needs to be considered in issues of communication
  • Tinnitus can be distracting
  • Tinnitus may be a symptom of poor noise management practices at work.

Human Ear PainThe research study conducted by David Moore and others was focusing on “lifetime leisure music exposure” so workplace noise is mentioned in the report only in passing.

It is common that unless a worker is deaf or seen signing, the default assumption is that everyone’s hearing is undamaged. The research data above shows that the assumption is false.

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Wearable tech provides data, not decisions

People want information about their own health and fitness.  Many are turning to wearable technology and activity trackers for that information, but information requires decisions or actions to gain benefit. The limitations of activity tracking and decisions was reinforced recently with some US research in the area. The University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s Department…

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Knowledge remains power, even in the age of robots

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

Cabbage Salad and Safety podcast – Episode 4

Podcasting is not always as easy as talking to a microphone or interviewing someone across a desk.  Episode 4 of the Cabbage Salad and Safety podcast that is posted online today was the third take.

Part of the challenge with podcasting is trusting that what you are saying is interesting, another part is not to talk shit.  Thankfully (we think) it was the first of these challenges that caused us to re-record.  Very few of us hear our conversations back.  Our threads of thought are usually clear to ourselves but we are unsure of how it sounds to others.  It is the difference between speaking and listening in a conversation.  Listening to what one says can be a confronting experieince.

Episode 4 uses Corr’s Mid-year Review as the launching pad for a discussion on disruption, duty of care, contractor management and my inadequacies.

The next episode will be recorded at the Safety Convention in Sydney, taking in some of the topics being presented but also including a short review of the conference.

As always, please include your comments about the podcast below or email me by clicking on my name.

Kevin Jones

Master Builders keeping up with tech changes in safety

MBA-Poster2On February 2016, the New South Wales division of the Master Builders of Australia (MBANSW) launched a new mobile app that applies augmented reality (AR) to access safety information related to construction sites.  The software has the capacity to access safety information in the form of videos, text, documents and internet links that can put occupational health and safety (OHS) information into the hands of workers.

There is great potential in this software application and the MBANSW should be acknowledged for supporting a technology that is still in its early development but offers an additional way of accessing important occupational health and safety information at the place where may be most needed – in the hands of workers.

But the app is not the answer to everything and, thankfully, MBANSW never claimed it was.  There are technical and organisational limitations to the app but it is a very good start.

Continue reading “Master Builders keeping up with tech changes in safety”

Extracting good from maps of death

Ever since I read the London Encyclopaedia during my honeymoon in England, I have waited for a similar encyclopaedia based on workplace safety. However, the world has changed since then and such an encyclopaedia would most likely to be created as an app.

The London Encyclopaedia is indexed by places, streets and addresses, and so should a “Safety Encyclopaedia” app through a localised map of workplace fatalities.

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Learning safety and leadership from drama

Fukushima playMost professionals, including occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals, support the use of stories or narratives or case studies to explain complex scenarios and situations.  Recently, at the ProSafe 2015 conference in Melbourne, acting and theatrical skills were used to illustrate the humanity behind the nuclear disaster of Fukushima.

To the uninitiated this may sound like quantitative risk assessment of underground mining being explained through interpretative dance by bandicoots, but the actors in the Fukushima disaster scenario were captivating and the power of theatre, even in this small-scale and on a conference podium, was powerful, stimulating and engaging. And with a

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OHS consultation through social media – the new (and better) way

For a little while employers, government and trade unions in Australia were spreading their consultative pool on occupational health and safety (OHS) matters.  Recently that triumvirate seems to have returned to a more exclusive structure.  The reason is unclear but the situation is a backward step and one that fails to take advantage of the modern consultative technologies.

In some ways OHS in Australia seems to be moribund. Professional associations do not seem to be growing even in a time of regulatory change.  Trade union membership numbers seem to have bottomed out without much diminution of their political influence. It may be time to look at a new consultative approach that builds ownership of workplace safety on the back of the awareness marketing by the OHS regulators.  However to do so may mean that the tripartite structure be dissolved over time and that the policy development expectations of government on OHS matters be substantially revised. Continue reading “OHS consultation through social media – the new (and better) way”