How to choose and implement new safety technologies for utility staff

July 21, 2023
Embracing the latest advances in safety technology is essential for workers' well-being — but how a wastewater utility chooses and implements those advances can be just as important.

Since the beginning of safety technology many years ago, occupational health and safety technology has come a very long way — particularly for those in the water and wastewater industry who are facing increasingly different challenges in their work environment.

With growing challenges for water and wastewater utility staff, safety solutions have also expanded. What new solutions are out there, and which are best for a particular workplace?

The current challenges

The first sewage treatment plant using chemical precipitation was built in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1890. As cities and communities have gotten larger, so to have these plants and the number of people needed to run them.

Today, workers in the water industry face a range of different occupational safety hazards such as: cave-ins and working in confined spaces; drowning; burns and electrocution; exposure to toxic gases, chemicals and biohazards; limb injury from heavy machinery and equipment; as well as accidents while travelling to worksites.

Sometimes working long, late hours, staff can also face mental health challenges, including lone water workers who are even more vulnerable to the safety hazards mentioned above, requiring their own special occupational health and safety (OHS) measures. These include safety check-ins, confirming their location and safety stats, and the latest in OHS technology and safety devices.

These new OHS measures can address a range of safety hazards and challenges in the workplace.

Advancing PPE

Since the 2020 pandemic and its general requirements for face masks, face shields, and other personal protective equipment (PPE), people have begun to look at PPE with more scrutiny, especially regarding the materials they’re being made with. In a study looking at the use of novel materials (like radiation-shielding TiO2) in several applications, researchers found that “In all, the advancement of materials science has greatly motivated the revolution of PPEs, rendering improved protection efficiency, functionality and wearing comfort.”

PPE is becoming increasingly lighter, more protective, and more functional. They’re also becoming more intelligent, monitoring essential factors like the worker’s vital signs and stress levels and external factors such as extreme temperatures, high radiation levels, and toxic gases. In this context, PPE also includes protective clothing to watch the employee’s well-being and smaller devices like smart face masks with accompanying earbuds that improve communication and even translate different languages.

Ubiquitous location tracking

In an emergency, the number one piece of information an employer or emergency responder needs to know is the location of the worker in danger so that help can be sent as fast as possible. If an employee is working off-site or in remote areas, location tracking is especially vital to ensure that help is readily available should they need it.

For some smartphone safety applications, the worker’s location and other important details will be sent to the employer when they check in to confirm their safety. During this time, other crucial data, such as notes from the shift, and details about the work environment, are also communicated to the supervisor or manager. And with significant advancements in satellite communications, workers can be located anywhere, even in areas with low or no-cellular signal. 

Satellite technology, like Globalstar's SPOT messenger, will locate the employee as well as provide other vital information like the work being performed and any relevant communications. In an emergency, seconds, and certainly minutes, can make a major impact on whether the employee goes home after their shift.

How to leverage effectively

With this diverse market of different types of safety technology available, where do you even start when exploring the best options for your team?

Hazard assessments and working alone policies

An exhaustive hazard assessment of the workplace identifies all the safety threats that employees face while at work. It’s essential to consult all levels of the organization who may encounter these hazards or can offer a unique perspective. 

Once the hazards have been identified, it is time to explore safety measures and tactics to mitigate them through new strategies. For example, these strategies can include working alone polices, which will act as knowledgeable guides for worker safety.

When considering these approaches, ask questions like: Can a change in practice or process fix it? Or is a technological solution more viable? If so, what’s available to address my safety needs?

Informed implementation

If the decision has been made to equip water employees with new technology, the onboarding and implementation of these new devices must be carefully planned and executed. This is particularly pertinent for different devices worn or carried while performing work, potentially causing a change in workflow and routine.

Most importantly, all levels of staff who will be using or will be impacted by the technology must contribute to the preparation and introduction of the safety technology.

Clear communications

Whether it's a smartphone app, new protective gloves, or new workwear, when first introducing the latest safety technology and PPE it is essential to communicate why it's being incorporated into their work day or night. Give examples and show any data or testimonials that support its effectiveness and impact on their well-being and safety.

Know your team

Depending on the size of the team or organization, it may not be easy to gauge what they need for their occupational health and safety. A hazard assessment involving everyone is efficient and accurate. However, talking to the workers individually will provide a much more vivid picture of their safety challenges.

It is up to the employers and managers to identify the challenges, address them, and provide mitigating safety technologies so their employees can go to work knowing that their well-being is a priority.

About the Author

Gen Handley

Gen Handley is Marketing and Growth Coordinator, Tsunami Solutions/SafetyLine Lone Worker. Handley can be reached at [email protected]

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