On Tuesday, July 23, LNS Research hosted the webcast, “Use IX to Futureproof EHS Systems and Technology.” The presentation explained why the Industrial Transformation (IX) trend forces environment, health, and safety (EHS) business leaders to make major decisions on how they will leverage digital technologies to manage risk and exploit opportunities. The discussion included an examination of which steps companies must take now to deliver value into the future, about the risks that are unavoidable with transformation, and how to manage them to resist obsolescence.
Why is engagement by EHS executives in IX so low?
It’s a combination of reasons, and they vary a lot among industrial companies depending on the EHS culture, executive leadership, and capability maturity. Like it or not, EHS is not a core value chain function, although EHS risks and compliance issues are certainly pervasive throughout operations and value chains. Couple that with a historical emphasis on “compliance,” and EHS has tended to be somewhat of a departmental silo operating in “reactive mode.” To the extent that is the case in a particular organization, EHS may not get the first call to collaborate on an IX initiative, and may not be as “plugged in” on major business initiatives as other functional leaders.
Ultimately, it depends on whether EHS has a seat at the table for key initiatives, or if the EHS leader has the wherewithal to get involved. This is a unique time in the history of the EHS discipline to change how EHS engages, integrates with, and contributes value to the business. In fact, IX is a once-in-a-career type of opportunity.
What are some of the digital technologies that companies are successfully implementing?
Many companies are moving away from paper forms, spreadsheets, and fragmented point solutions. Therefore, we see a big uptick in the implementation of cloud-based enterprise EHS software platforms that enable core IT capabilities (like data management, workflow, reporting, etc.) for essential EHS processes like compliance management, incident management, audits and inspections, management of change, and risk assessment. Another major digitalization trend is deploying EHS applications on mobile devices on the plant floor and in the field, especially for incident reporting, audits, and inspections; among these there has been a lot of success.
In terms of the digital technologies of Industry 4.0, most EHS software vendors are investing in advanced analytics capabilities, including machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) for predictive analytics. The industrial company can apply these capabilities to standard EHS data, to data from other IT systems such as HR and maintenance, and to Big Data from operational manufacturing technology and systems ― all to gain new risk-based insights to predict and prevent adverse events. There is also quite a bit of action in using Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies to collect and analyze real time Big Data from sensor-equipped assets, facilities, and people. Connected worker solutions are starting to get some real traction, including intelligent wearables, AR/mixed reality, geolocation, and proximity beacons, among many others. Across the board, the vendor landscape is fairly fragmented right now, with many start-ups and early-stage technologies; it’s going to take a while for everything to shake out, and for the highest-value solutions to emerge.
Will EHS roles disappear due to automation and digitalization?
Individuals might, but not their roles … those that ignore the risks and opportunities of IX and stick their heads in the digital sand will almost certainly be left behind (at best, passed over, and at worst discarded)! All kidding aside, titles like EHS, safety, sustainability, and others will continue well into the future. Over time the function will probably become further integrated with operations.
Looking back 30 years, when I first entered the EHS profession as a freshly minted industrial hygienist at Alcoa, my colleagues and I talked about how the job was to eliminate our jobs. Ultimately, we may see more hybrid business/operations/EHS roles than pure-play EHS and safety jobs. Along those lines, as IX proceeds, there will likely be more merging of roles in adjacent business functions such as safety, quality, reliability, and others. These roles can share common management system elements and enable technologies such as risk, incident, audits, etc.
More importantly, digitalization will have an increasingly significant impact on the work EHS practitioners do, whether in a hybrid role or not. Yes, routine compliance tasks will become more automated. Ultimately, this will free up a lot of time for EHS people to focus on things that add value ― like spending more time in the field collaborating with teams on risk assessments, coaching, training, and so much more. And, the real game-changer is that digital tech, especially IIoT, Big Data analytics, ML, AI, and others will give EHS pros the ability to conduct actual predictive risk management. In some sense, they will become more like data scientists and use data to find trends, patterns, and anomalies; to think of new questions to ask and new ways to solve old problems. So, while the EHS role won't be going away any time soon, it will morph into one that will be more interesting, and make the EHS function’s business and operational performance contributions more visible.