Where OHS can get the most benefit out of digital technology

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Tuesday, 22 January, 2019 - 11:30
Industry news
National News

Most organisations are finding it challenging to effectively use digital technologies to improve OHS outcomes and many examples of digital technology initiatives are not owned, driven and achieved by OHS functions, according to EY.

“The OHS digital initiatives we do see are typically implemented to address a specific problem,” said Nicole Meacock, Senior Manager HSE Consulting for EY.

“Generally, we don’t see organisations adopt a strategic approach to digital OHS.”

Meacock, who was speaking ahead of the SIA National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held from 22-23 May 2019 at the International Convention Centre (ICC) Sydney, also observed that OHS functions often operate with limited technological capability.

“There is often an over-reliance on digital technologies being ‘silver bullets’,” she said.

“This reliance usually ends in disappointment, as no digital technology can address the complex, human challenges that OHS professionals encounter.”

Meacock explained that digital technology can be a key lever that influences an organisation’s OHS maturity.

“When we assess digital maturity, we rarely find digital OHS maturity beyond ‘basic’ or ‘developing’” she said.

"Conversations with clients and more broadly across industry indicate there is strong interest in this topic, but most are uncertain as to how to use digital technologies to meaningfully improve their OHS performance,” she said.

Meacock said that capability gaps in digital technology are continuing to widen, and while some organisations in the bottom quartile are struggling with understanding fundamental concepts like big data analytics and innovation, others are encountering more advanced problems like integration and implementing machine learning.

“Often OHS functions equate big data to large spreadsheets, and analytics as simple graphs and calculations,” she said.

“More digitally capable professionals understand that big datasets are those that are large in volume, high velocity (e.g. real time), and highly variable (e.g. not simply counting inspections).”

In terms of digital WHS initiatives, she said those that are successful as requiring three elements: subject matter expertise; technology that works; and human-centred design.

“We’ve found that without addressing these three areas collectively, it is difficult to achieve successful digital initiatives,” she said.

“In our experience it is the final element that organisations find the most challenging.

“This means things like building trust with workgroups and employing design thinking principles.”

Furthermore, Meacock said many digital initiatives do not stick, and sometimes they wither when the initiator leaves the business, or the workforce doesn’t adopt the technology.

“We also see many instances of poorly integrated digital elements,” she said.

From an executive perspective, these failures may materialise as ‘flash in the pan’ projects which do not yield any meaningful return on investment.

At a managerial level, this might manifest as ‘app fatigue’, where every individual problem is met with a separate isolated application.

“The result is disconnected systems that can create worse overall results,” said Meacock.

“At the worker level this may mean inadequate user-centred design, poor change management, or inadequate training, resulting in user frustration and confusion.”

Meacock, who will be talking about organisations taking a high level, strategic roadmap to success at the SIA National Health and Safety Conference, said this approach will help to avoid ‘boiling the ocean’ and to focus on those several things that matter most.

“Once a roadmap is fleshed out, organisations can begin their digital journey by upskilling workers, designing pilot trials, and ‘failing fast’,” she said.

“Often our clients are so overwhelmed by the myriad of technologies on offer, it is hard to know where to start.

“By developing or engaging digital capabilities, organisations can build well-designed initiatives that allow for failure ‘in a safe space’ (pardon the pun).”

Without failure, Meacock said that learning can be slow, if not impossible – “so we encourage organisations to experience ‘contained failure’.”

“For example, rather than replacing your entire training program with a virtual reality-based platform overnight, run some trials on specific areas using virtual reality as a supplementary tool,” she said.

“This will spark ideas for further use and build your organisation’s internal capabilities.”

Digital technology is significantly impacting the role of the modern OHS professional, and Meacock said that the role of OHS is evolving to require the following capabilities:

  1. Clearly understand the objectives of OHS digital initiatives/strategies, and ensuring these align with the broader business objectives. This might require strong advocacy for users (including effective consultation) and human-centred design skills.
  2. Ensure effective change management processes are in place to support these initiatives, again to ensure objectives are met.
  3. Understand their own and the organisation’s capability gaps, enabling OHS digital projects to include the right capability mix of OHS and digital expertise.
  4. Build a high-level understanding of the various technologies, in order to ask the right questions and connect the right stakeholders to effect change.
  5. Build trust through clear communications, because we know that trust and the flow of information are critical to building organisational OHS capability.
  6. Finally, OHS professionals need to understand what a well-designed initiative looks like, so that success or failure can be captured and built upon. They need to think about ‘what is our hypothesis? What assumptions have we made? And how will we know if we are on the right track?’.

OHS professionals need to position themselves at the centre of the three-element model mentioned above (subject matter expertise; technology that works; and human-centred design).

“Their role is to understand what the subject matter experts are saying, to liaise with workgroups to optimise human-centred design, and to understand the technologies well enough to articulate to business leaders,” said Meacock.

“By taking actions that grow their capabilities across these key areas, they are future-proofing themselves in a changing world of work.

“By growing their competency, they can not only survive these periods of rapid change, but lead their organisations in leveraging digital technology to improve OHS performance,” she said.

The SIA National Health and Safety Conference will be held from 22-23 May 2019 at the International Convention Centre (ICC) Sydney. For more information or to register, please call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit