Out-Law News 2 min. read

AI can support health & safety incident prevention

Artificial intelligence (AI) offers businesses an opportunity to improve the safety of workplaces, thus driving down costs for businesses, an expert has said.

During the year 2022-23, the UK’s workforce suffered from 900,000 cases of work-related stress, depression, or anxiety, 600,000 cases of non-fatal injuries to workers, and 135 work-related fatalities, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The impact of these incidents is wide-reaching - in addition to the huge physical and mental impact on workers and their families, there is also a financial and reputational impact to businesses. 

In 2021-22, employers in the UK incurred £20.7 billion in costs resulting from workplace injuries and new cases of work-related ill-health. With the number of injuries and illnesses at 1.8 million in 2022-23, costs to companies will likely remain high unless action is taken to improve health and safety incident prevention.

Health and safety expert Hannah Frost of Pinsent Masons said: “The statistics released by the HSE paint a clear picture of the financial impact of health and safety incidents on businesses. Companies should be looking to invest in solutions that can ease that financial burden by preventing injuries and illnesses through incident reduction.”

One such solution is the use of AI-driven tools which can improve health and safety for businesses by working to gather data on circumstances surrounding accidents and risks, Frost said. For example, business’ CCTV infrastructure can be linked to computer vison software which processes data captured on-site in real time. The data can identify near misses between workers and vehicles that management would not necessarily be aware of otherwise. Further, workers can wear devices incorporated into their clothes which give off an audible warning if the worker gets too close to dangerous machinery. Additionally, sensors can detect abnormalities in variables like temperature, noise and air pressure which predict incoming failures and alert management to the need for maintenance before an incident occurs.

The knowledge obtained from these incident-prevention technologies can be harvested to improve understanding of workplace risk, tackle potential underreporting of health and safety incidents and train workers to try and prevent incidents from occurring in the future.

These technologies are not just a technical possibility for the future - they are already on the market and have enabled some companies to see up to a 40% reduction in near misses in one week, Frost said. “There is evidence that investment in AI technologies can produce a significant return for businesses in terms of incident reduction. Businesses can utilise the data collected to identify hazards more accurately, and then develop and implement safety measures that effectively target that hazard before an actual incident materialises,” she said.

Laura White, health and safety expert at Pinsent Masons, said, however, that using AI in this way was “not a perfect solution.” As an example, she noted the potential privacy concerns stemming from “over-watchful misuse” – where AI-enabled workplace sensors automatically track all aspects of worker activity rather than being focused only on health and safety risks or hazards. This may cause challenges for the management of safety culture when trying to convey to the workforce that AI is not a spying form of micro-management but rather a tool aiming to ensure worker safety.

Even if AI collects the necessary data, it is then the responsibility of the company to act upon this data. If not acted upon, the company is in the same, or perhaps worse, position in the eyes of health and safety enforcement. Knowing the issues could indicate prior knowledge of a health and safety risk, in which case a failure to act would breach health and safety law and present an aggravating feature on sentencing, White said.

“While the use of AI-powered tools may come with some challenges, they would certainly support other well-established safety management principles and perhaps represent the way forward in health and safety incident prevention,” Frost added.

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