In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation have become hot topics that have captivated industries around the world. They have found their way into discussions about workplace safety because they promise to increase efficiency, productivity, and innovation. They are something that we hear from our clients and partners at NECA, too. There is very real interest in leveraging AI to support workplace safety.

The challenge is not relying too heavily on AI technology. Yes, AI and automation can help – and significantly so, too. But they’re not an excuse to get complacent, either.

What Role AI and Automation Might Play on Work Sites

AI-powered technology has already begun to take on tasks once exclusively handled by human workers. In tasks that require repetitive, data-driven, and precise processing, AI technology excels. Therefore, this technology has become a valuable asset in construction, manufacturing, and other high-risk industries.

In construction, for example, drones equipped with AI can conduct aerial surveys and monitor progress, providing real-time data to aid decision-making and risk management. Automated machinery with advanced sensors can detect potential hazards, such as gas leaks or unstable structures, much faster than human workers, reducing the likelihood of accidents.

How AI and Automation Can Assist with Promoting a Safe Worksite

Perhaps the single biggest area where AI shows potential is in predictive analytics, because here AI can do something humans cannot. AI can analyse historical accident data and environmental factors to predict potential safety hazards to an incredible degree of certainty. Not just “gut feelings” or relying on experience, AI will draw on a depth of data that no human could possibly remember to “read” a site and its potential hazards.

To achieve this, we’ll start seeing more AI-powered cameras and sensors that can continuously monitor work sites appear on sites. It might feel a little like surveillance, but in reality it will be essential for flagging any safety violations or unusual activities in real time, and then allowing the supervisors to step in before an incident develop.

Following on from this, there are three areas where AI-powered technology might start to enter work sites:

  • Training and Simulation: AI can be used to develop realistic training simulations that enable workers to practice safety procedures in a controlled environment. Thus, enhancing their preparedness for real-life situations.
  • Maintenance and Inspection: Automated robots equipped with cameras and sensors can conduct routine equipment inspections and maintenance tasks in hazardous environments, reducing the exposure of human workers to risks.
  • Wearable Technology: AI-powered wearable devices can monitor workers’ vital signs and detect signs of fatigue or stress, ensuring that employees are not pushing themselves beyond safe limits.

Where AI and Automation Cannot Help with Making a Worksite Safe

There are some limitations to AI and automation, despite their significant benefits in terms of safety. These technologies are not complete replacements for human judgment and expertise, but rather tools to assist and enhance safety measures. Here are some areas where AI and automation fail:

Firstly, while AI is excellent at analysing data to make an assessment, it lacks the creative flexibility to interpret context. Where workplace safety is concerned, managers need to make a massive range of micro-decisions involving complex ethical and judgement-based thought. In this area there is no substitute for human expertise and experience.
Secondly, AI applications are not great communicators. We’ve all seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and while the reality is not like that (no, there won’t be any HALs popping up any time soon), the underlying message is true: AI lacks empathy and struggles to convey nuance to humans in a way that’s essential for getting them on board with difficult or sensitive decisions in high-pressure environments.
Finally, AI is very good at using knowledge that it already has. If you’ve programmed an AI application to look at a certain environment, then it’s going to be very good at providing analysis of that environment. However, it will be clueless about any other environment, and if an unforeseen situation were to occur, then AI would not be great at responding to that.

For an extreme example – an AI on a worksite in Australia might be great at providing risk management guidance against extreme heat on-site, or the risk of an arc flash incident. If the site experiences an earthquake – and they do happen in Australia, though they are rarely considered in a SWMS, the AI will have no idea how to respond, and it may well give bad advice.

How NECA Safety Equipment Can Support a Safe Working Environment

In the quest of a safer work environment, NECA continues to play a vital role in providing the kind of safety equipment that supports a safe worksite. Even once AI becomes fully ingrained into safety processes, it will be critical to continue to supply your teams with all of the following supports:

  • Advanced Safety Gear: NECA offers a wide range of safety gear, including protective clothing, helmets, gloves, and eyewear, designed to shield workers from physical hazards.
  • Training and Education: NECA provides comprehensive safety training programs that equip workers with the knowledge and skills needed to identify and mitigate risks effectively.
  • Safety Standards: NECA adheres to stringent safety standards and guidelines, ensuring that contractors and electricians work in compliance with industry best practices.
  • Safety Advocacy: NECA advocates for worker safety at the legislative level, promoting policies that prioritise the well-being of employees in the electrical construction industry.
  • Research and Development: NECA invests in research and development to create innovative safety solutions, such as improved electrical safety protocols and equipment.

A safer work environment needs a balanced approach that leverages AI and automation, but also values the irreplaceable contributions made by employees. At NECA, we will continue to lead the way towards a safer, more secure future.