4 emerging tech tools for EHS and sustainability professionals

What does it take to prevent environmental pollution? How do you make sure employees perform their work in a way that keeps them safe from injury? Which sustainability metrics are best for helping your company change how it operates?  

A new report from the National Association for Environment, Health and Safety and Sustainability management (NAEM) reveals that emerging technologies are rapidly changing how companies answer those questions. In its latest research into the trends shaping the profession, the association found that companies are experimenting with some truly high-tech solutions to improve data collection, reduce risks and monitor their environmental impacts in live time.

Here is a look at a few technology tools that are starting to take hold:

1. Smart sensors

Thirty-one percent of NAEM respondents are using or evaluating using smart sensors in the workplace. It’s no surprise — smart sensors have a variety of possible applications at work. These devices take input from the physical environment and use built-in computational resources to respond, performing predefined functions upon detection of specific input. Smart sensors can be used for everything from tracking worker safety — to see if a line operator is at risk of an ergonomic injury — to monitoring a storage tank’s walls for stability and the liquid contents within to ensure they are in the correct balance. 

All of these applications increase the rate that key data reaches the people who can act on it and reduce the likelihood of bad things happening.

2. Drones

Drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles can monitor broad swaths of land and those that are difficult to access by road or foot. In forested areas, they can track illegal deforestation and monitor for wildfires.  In agricultural applications, they can monitor fields for crop growth, infestations and irrigation leaks. Ranchers can use drones equipped with high definition cameras and thermal imaging to monitor livestock location and health.

The key with all of these applications is that they allow for more robust monitoring at a reduced cost than "boots on the ground" can provide. Quickly identifying problems means the cost of containment will be much lower. It’s no surprise 14 percent of respondents are using or evaluating drones for use in EHS monitoring, inspections and data collection.

3. Artificial intelligence and machine learning

Twenty percent of respondents are using machine learning — a form of artificial intelligence — on the job. The most crucial applications combine raw data with a computer powerful enough to identify patterns and make decisions with minimal human intervention. One machine learning platform NAEM documented automates decision-making for retailers on unsaleable items such as leaking detergent or expired hair dye. It provides retail employees with a barcode scanner connected to a database which advises employees about the hazardous materials contained in the products and the best way to dispose of them: donation; recycling; or landfill.

Artificial intelligence brings automation to many other routine EHS&S tasks as well, from air quality sampling to greenhouse gas emissions management.

4. Virtual reality

When it comes to workplace safety, training is key. Virtual reality is making EHS&S training faster, easier and more effective. Rather than simply describing a safety risk companies can use a simulated work environment to teach employees how to safely lift and load, practice new skills and work in confined spaces. EHS&S professionals are also using it to conduct virtual "walkthroughs" of facilities before they are built to flag compliance issues and to advise on modifications that could be made while the project is still in the design stage. Sixteen percent of those surveyed are using or evaluating virtual reality tools to help get the job done.

Don't forget the important role of data management

As these new technologies come on line, effective data management becomes a new opportunity and challenge. New data is only as good and as useful as the algorithms that make sense of it. Privacy concerns also come into play. Data security protocols must be strong and algorithms must be carefully crafted to avoid inserting bias. These concerns are top of mind for any EHS&S professional integrating new data systems into their work. The most effective integrations of new technology will be mindful of these challenges and work proactively to resolve them.

Ultimately, it’s not the data you have but what you do with it that makes new technology most impactful.