Emerging Technologies

How industry could use augmented reality to improve workplace safety

The potential of augmented reality.

The potential of augmented reality. Image: Unsplash / @jamesyarema

Anu Pillai
Digital Partner, Engineering, Construction, Operations and Airports, Domain and Consulting, Wipro
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Emerging Technologies

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  • The development of occupational health and safety norms has helped to foster safer workplaces and create health regulations for workers across diverse industries.
  • Next-gen technologies could further improve this process and integrate additional scenarios developed over the years.
  • Augmented reality tools are already being used to simulate a range of processes and support health and safety training and inspections, but it is possible to do more with this technology.

Health and safety inspections by international and local regulatory bodies are part of the DNA of many industries. They provide a check on business owners, legally binding them to provide a safe workplace and environment for their employees, contractors and visitors.

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Although working conditions have generally improved over the years, adherence to these norms have not put a stop to workplace fatalities. According to a report published by the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO), almost 2 million people die from work-related causes each year, with occupational injuries causing 19% of these deaths. The annual cost to the global economy from such accidents is nearly $3 trillion, according to the ILO. But while financial loss can be reclaimed, these incidents can permanently change the quality of life of victims and their loved ones. This kind of impact cannot be remunerated.

Of the various risk indicators for workplace accidents, human negligence requires particular attention. For example, when the world was fighting COVID-19, a gas leak at a chemical plant in India killed 12 people and 32 animals, and saw thousands evacuated from their households. A subsequent investigation raised questions about inspection procedures at the plant, particularly during pandemic restrictions.

Of the various risk indicators for workplace accidents, human negligence requires particular attention.

Anu Pillai

Workplace inspections have traditionally been conducted offline by health and safety officers and a company’s operations team. Recent advancements in technology have led to the ability to automate safety audits and inspections, however. The introduction of the internet of things (IoT) has further enhanced these developments by enabling close to real-time data collection and reporting with sensors. The use of wireless sensors has shortcomings, however, including high costs, the need for maintenance, and the impact of temperature interference.

Augmented reality (AR) technology could address such challenges and provide a more cost-effective and efficient way to conduct health and safety inspections.

Role of augmented reality in improving workplace safety

Here are three ways AR could be used in this area:

1) Visualizing and moving

Inspections tend to be based on a series of elementary checklists, but finding and checking the elements in a timely manner can be a challenge for inspectors.

Workplace facilities are typically shown on 2D maps displayed in common and critical areas as part of an emergency exit plan. This is changing however, as governments in countries including the US, UK, Australia and Germany start to mandate the use of 3D models, often referred as Building Information Models (BIM), for all public projects.

Multi-storeyed, closed and restricted indoor spaces are difficult to map using common outdoor mapping solutions. Google Maps, for example, uses GPS co-ordinates – longitude (x) and latitude (y) – to map accessible outdoor spaces, but vertical structures require a third coordinate (z) to enable visualisation and movement.

This is where augmented reality can help. It superimposes a computer-generated model onto the real world without the need for additional hardware such as the beacons that are often used to replicate outdoor GPS mapping indoors.

When coupled with this data (x, y, z) collected from computer vision-based surveying tools and rendered onto a floor map, AR can digitise a physical space and its infrastructure. This makes it possible to map and track any equipment – from fire extinguishers to storage tanks and large machinery.

Traditional inspection forms can then be integrated with the AR-generated floor map to help health & safety inspectors navigate the facility. They can follow a guided path on a smartphone or use headgear or other industry devices that are compatible with augmented reality technology.

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2) Training and validation

Workplace health and safety inspections and maintenance must be conducted regularly and should be the responsibility of multiple employees, not dependent on a few specific individuals.

Augmented reality can be used to enhance related documents such as user manuals or product maintenance videos and images to help any employee participate in this process and potentially stop a health and safety accident from happening.

Further, in a non-digital workplace, it is difficult to check that an inspector of a large piece of machinery with multiple checkpoints physically has actually visited each one. With augmented reality, the physical location of the inspector can be validated, allowing for remote audits. This capability can also be used to record employee access to hazardous or restricted zones.

When combined with other next-generation technologies, AR can be used to transform the way many industries function.

Anu Pillai

3) Reporting and tracking issues

When combined with building management systems and ticketing software applications, augmented reality can also be used to help engineers check any equipment issues that have been identified during an inspection. For instance, a discrepancy identified during a daily inspection or a maintenance exercise can be reported with details including an image or video and the location coordinates. This will equip the engineer with the required information to easily find and address the issue. If the issue requires immediate attention, the inspector can use an AR content guide to perform any necessary action.

Augmented site and infrastructure content can help staff – old and new – to access information about operations in a click of their handheld devices or even using headgear. In addition, regular, visual health and safety tours can be conducted very easily for all employees. From a skillset standpoint, this will help the organisation to ensure more employees are equipped to manage any standard operations, potentially increasing productivity and efficiency.

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The restrictions experienced by many industries during COVID-19 have, in many cases, severely affected the number of staff allowed on-site at once. When combined with other next-generation technologies, AR can now be used to transform the way many of these industries function. When it comes to health and safety specficially, augmented reality can help minimise risk and maximise adherence to regulatory requirements.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Emerging TechnologiesFuture of Work
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