Harnessing AI: Crafting the Future of Safety Professionals
In an ever-evolving world, technological advancements have the potential to transform industries and revolutionize the way we approach safety. Among the many emerging applications of artificial intelligence (AI), one particular use case stands out: the ability to listen to and analyze tens of thousands of daily tailboard conversations to determine their effectiveness in achieving desired outcomes.
Consider this example: A prominent utility company in the Southeast conducts thousands of tailboard meetings every day, recording these vital planning discussions through a simple video application. The challenge arises when attempting to manually review and evaluate the vast volume of these conversations. The sheer magnitude renders human efforts impractical, making it nearly impossible to analyze each one effectively.
Enter AI, a powerful ally in the realm of safety enhancement. By leveraging artificial intelligence, these conversations can be efficiently analyzed and organized based on their effectiveness in terms of safety. Take the above example of the utility company, for instance. The company’s leadership is a staunch advocate for improving hazard recognition and relies on the energy wheel for this purpose. By applying AI to assess how well each conversation aligns with the principles of the energy wheel, a practical and efficient solution emerges.
This practical application of AI demonstrates how technology can provide invaluable insights into the effective application of safety systems. In this case, the AI identifies how well the energy wheel principles are being implemented in the tailboard meetings, offering tangible examples in real language to safety experts. This newfound understanding enables these experts to adapt their approaches, supporting those who need assistance and acknowledging those who excel at hazard recognition.
What is particularly intriguing about this AI-driven approach is the limitless potential for customization. Imagine having the ability to tailor the AI’s listening capabilities to suit your unique requirements and priorities. By taking a few moments to ponder what aspects of the conversations matter most to you, you can instruct the machine to organize the discussions based on the effectiveness of the safety measures being applied, ultimately leading to improved outcomes and better-targeted efforts.
Now, in the remaining sections of this article, we will delve deeper into the transformative potential of AI in the safety industry. From streamlining hazard recognition to enhancing incident prevention, AI’s integration promises to herald a new era of workplace safety, bolstering protection for employees and businesses alike. Let’s continue to explore how AI can be harnessed to build a safer and more secure working environment for everyone involved.
What if AI could slash the rate of severe injuries and fatalities by a staggering 50% over the next decade? This bold prediction is based on the vision that AI is not limited to helping you write more effective pre-task planning documents or find out what hazards have or have not been mentioned at your work sites today. Rather, it will help leaders foster psychologically safe cultures that thrive on real-time, peer-to-peer knowledge exchange.
Imagine a future in which your frontline leaders don’t just have high-impact daily planning conversations; they also propagate a culture and system revolution, sharing their insights with those ready to learn and improve. Here, high-impact knowledge, fine-tuned to particular contexts, is not just helping you identify hazards – it is helping your team become a true learning organization.
In this new era, daily podcasts detailing cultural alignment, potential risks, system vulnerabilities and prevention strategies supersede the outdated, convoluted trending charts of hazard symptoms. This is not merely a dream but an emerging reality, a shift that leverages AI to fundamentally transform our approach to safety, fostering a proactive, enlightened organization devoted to reducing risk and enhancing lives.
A New Language of Safety
Over the past five years, companies have revolutionized the way they collect safety data. For some, video recordings of daily planning conversations have replaced scribbled tasks, hazards and controls on paper forms. Now, with AI, we can objectively analyze and organize thousands of these conversations, unveiling insights about our people and culture in ways we’ve never been able to before.
Ron Sokol, CEO of the Safety Council Texas City, offered this commentary on the transformation: “When you include the worker in the conversation, they’re going to feel like you’re their advocate. You’re not saying everything is going to be safe. You’re saying there’s risk, but we’re going to go to an acceptable level. Or we can decide together if we need to engineer or redesign to mitigate the risk.”
In essence, the role of the safety professional shifts from being a mere list checker to being an active participant in risk management. This change helps to foster a culture of trust and curiosity, inviting input rather than assigning blame.
Job hazard analyses hold value when combined with open, honest and respectful conversation. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the phrase “team psychological safety,” defines it as a “shared belief that it’s OK to take risks, express ideas and concerns, speak up with questions and admit mistakes – all without fear of negative consequences.” The transition from blaming to curious inquiry actively invites input, helping to transform the culture at the heart of incident prevention.
Countless studies assert how effective leaders achieve greater success and have fewer incidents with their crews. The pre-task planning activity is a window into how a strong leader engages their team. Their conversations are different from those of less effective leaders.
Today, the typical CEO hears a handful of field conversations a month. What happens when they can listen to thousands of them? The good ones will start asking a lot of “why” questions. What they will learn is that there are real and urgent cultural gaps in their organization and that they have the power, resources and opportunity to close them. Nothing matters more than culture when it comes to preventing incidents.
Safety Director John Messing of Joseph J. Albanese Inc., a California concrete contractor, has seen firsthand how AI can transform the work environment. “Having video conversations throughout our organization has helped people become more comfortable with speaking up and sharing,” he said. “If you pay attention to who is using certain phrases or words, you can see where that team might need support or guidance. It gives you more perspective on how to coach them.”
It will always be challenging in construction to talk about concerns or opportunities, because no one wants to get others in trouble. Messing’s team is sharing more because they are learning from each other and feel heard. He’s also pleased to see that those leading safety conversations at the company are becoming true leaders. “They believe in making sure everyone’s voice is heard,” Messing said.
Similarly, Jamie Dabbs, vice president of safety, health and environmental at TDIndustries, reported a significant increase in engagement in pre-task planning processes. “Within the first year of recording conversations and engaging AI solutions, engagement grew 1,000% to 155,000 observations a year, up from about 12,000,” he said. “OSHA recordable incident rates dropped dramatically for the company in the first two years and remain at a rate well below the industry average.”
Embracing the Future
In the near future, I anticipate leaders will look back and marvel at how AI paved the way for overcoming knowledge transfer and team development hurdles. AI empowers safety professionals to model effective practices and highlight the successful approaches of others.
We must evaluate our safety systems, identify exceptional leaders and explore what their conversations look and sound like. We must accept that traditional data collection methods have often fallen short of revealing the true health of our incident prevention systems. To evolve, we must listen attentively to what our field workers are saying – and what they are not saying.
Let’s spotlight and share conversations that reflect our cherished values, beliefs and culture. These conversations can serve as a window into how leaders engage their teams, shaping a safer and more efficient work environment.
With AI, we gain the ability to perceive and understand culture in unprecedented ways. An organization’s culture is a treasure that often goes unnoticed, but it can be harnessed for significant positive change. By utilizing AI, we can unearth and share these hidden gems, offering a chance for everyone to witness, align with and contribute to a better, safer future.
In the words of Todd Conklin, author and senior safety and culture adviser at Los Alamos National Lab, we must shift our focus from asking, “What rule was broken? Who did it? What should the consequences be?” to fostering a culture of open dialogue where we ask, as Edmondson suggests, “What are you seeing? What are your thoughts on this? Where do you stand on this idea?”
By integrating AI with a culture of open conversation, we’re not just improving our safety procedures; we’re revolutionizing the role of safety professionals, making strides toward a future where safety isn’t just a priority – it’s an integral part of our professional culture.
AI is more than a technological revolution. It is the instrument that will help safety professionals and executives build a future where work-related risks are minimized, productivity is maximized, and workplaces become more secure and efficient. It’s a future we’re already building. Let’s continue this journey together, shaping a world where the safety of all workers is assured, not as a box to check, but as a cornerstone of our collective mission.
About the Author: Barry Nelson is the president and CEO of FactorLab (https://factorlab.com), provider of the safety leading indicator application SmartTagIt. With decades of experience at the intersection of incident prevention and technology, Nelson and his team of data scientists and engineers have helped companies use emerging technologies, organizational science and machine learning to significantly reduce workplace accidents and injuries.
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