Why OHS professionals need to invest in digital literacy

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.
Thursday, 23 February, 2023 - 12:30
Industry news
National News

The organisations that are most successful at using technology to improve OHS outcomes have a clear vision for a tech-enabled future of work and focus their efforts to integrate their technology and safety strategies.

There are countless examples of organisations that have dabbled with OHS technology in recent times, but Cameron Stevens, a leading safety technologist and founder of the Safety Innovation Academy, said many organisations’ efforts are often shelved because the experimentation was never strategic in nature.

“Firstly, I think it’s important to define the influence tech can have on OHS outcomes; the umbrella term I use is SafetyTech,” said Stevens, who will be delivering a presentation at the upcoming AIHS National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held from 30 May to 1 June 2023 at the Brisbane Convention Centre.

Stevens defined “SafetyTech” as “any technology that has the potential to improve the design, experience and safety of work” and he said safety in this definition is a ‘catch-all’ for process, physical and psychological safety, health and wellbeing.

“The definition is deliberately broad to nudge us to think beyond SafetyTech as being synonymous with digital OHS databases to any technology that influences safety outcomes through improving the design and experience of work,” said Stevens.

When it comes to the most common challenges for organisations, he said a fixed mindset is the biggest challenge for OHS professionals and their organisations to overcome.

“OHS professionals are typically hired as the controllers of risk and are not often known to take risks, embrace creativity or thrive with uncertainty.

“I’d love to say SafetyTech adoption is seamlessly integrated into OHS strategy across the board and we are seeing amazing results, but unfortunately we are only just starting to observe a shift in focus on tech for safety.”

The rapid pace of change in the technology sector is also a challenge for OHS professionals and OHS regulators, who Stevens said “tend to change at a more glacial pace”.

Furthermore, the evidence base for the most cutting-edge technology leaves risk-averse OHS professionals waiting too long to capitalise on the opportunities provided by technology-enabled work, he added.

“The pandemic is an oft-used and understandable excuse underlying the lack of strategic approach with SafetyTech adoption,” said Stevens, who noted that, on one hand, the pandemic accelerated technology usage with almost every organisation on the planet.

On the other hand, he observed technology decision-making was not conducted in a strategic and human-centred way: “it was forced on most organisations who were simply not prepared,” he said.

The role of the OHS professional also changed during the pandemic, and Stevens said the reactive focus on PPE, hand-washing, contract tracing and other OHS basics diverted attention away from more planned and strategic technology initiatives.

“The OHS profession exited the worst of the pandemic fatigued, forced into using video calls for tasks best completed in person and were ultimately left to manage a seismic shift in work design that they had no strategic role in designing,” he said.

There are both significant opportunities and risks with adopting OHS technology, and Stevens explained the low-hanging fruit for OHS practitioners involves reducing the time it takes to obtain risk information at the time hazards are interacting with each other.

“Reducing latency in risk decisions involves connecting people, equipment and business systems in real-time; we call this connected work,” he said.

“Connected work provides workers and the workplace with access to risk information at the time work is actually being done. Connected work requires OHS professionals to introduce agility into their OHS management systems.

“Making OHS management system processes more conversational and visual is an easy starting point; you can do this by capturing voice notes rather than emails and using phone cameras for video-based risk assessments and operational learning,” said Stevens, who added that a 360 camera is also a cost-effective way to improve the context for risk decisions and to transfer tribal knowledge.

Stevens also pointed to a number of significant trends over the coming 3-5 years and said that with a fully connected workplace, OHS practitioners can expect to have access to a large volume of additional data sources that can contribute to more effective and holistic OHS decision-making in real-time.

“Workers will experience far more natural interaction with technology as language processing improves,” he said.

“Expect your workforce to speak their risk assessments rather than write them down and be able to ask questions to their devices just like they would another human.”

For example: “Can you please tell me if there are any welding tasks planned at the Alpha Refinery tomorrow?” to which the computer will respond “No Cameron, there are no hot work permits planned tomorrow, but there is a confined space entry planned in the exhaust stack on the south side of the Refinery. Did you want more info on that?”

Lastly, Stevens said 4D spatial planning (the use of 3D models with the added dimension of time to conduct planning activities with geospatial precision) will become far more commonplace.

“Trying to explain how a scaffold will impact the walkway of a construction site using a complex architectural drawing to a painting contractor will be replaced by showing them a 3D simulation to improve context in the planning process,” he said.

For OHS professionals looking to adopt or use OHS technology, Stevens said it is important to invest in digital literacy.

“OHS professionals have a responsibility to learn the basics of key technology trends shaping the future of work if they want to have a leading role in designing safer, healthier work in the digital age,” he said.

“Start by understanding the fundamentals of data and data science, and progress to learn about network connectivity, edge computing, mobility devices, immersive technologies, digital twins and machine learning.

“To be an effective change agent in the future of work you will also need general knowledge on human-centred design, agile project management, technology ethics and digital transformation strategy.”


Stevens will be presenting at the upcoming AIHS National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held from 30 May to 1 June 2023 at the Brisbane Convention Centre. This year’s conference theme is “Influence for Impact” and the conference will feature a range of speakers who will examine different aspects of the theme. For more information please call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.