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The future of Health Safety and Environment Management- Human and Machine Sensors

Written by Linda Pappagallo

Linda is a Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist. Linda developed monitoring and evaluation metrics that turned Ulula's data into insights. Before joining the team, she worked on key environmental and social policy issues like land grabbing and resettlements in the extractive and agricultural sector in Eastern Africa and Mozambique.

April 7, 2014

Work environments in the oil, gas and mining sector are renowned to be amongst the most hazardous of high impact industries, concomitantly current efforts in Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) risk mitigation have not always been met with high success rates.

The rising tide of sustainability reporting in the extractive sector, coupled with the increasing thirst for health performance indicators, safety and environmental data to feed into the expected task of better measuring HSE performance, is calling for scalable and cost-effective innovations.

As discussed at the SPE international conference on HSE earlier this March 2014, the sophistication and emphasis on health and safety, particularly in the oil and gas sector, has generated an ecosystem of consultants and companies with a marked emphasis on technology solutions- specifically in terms of machine data to prevent risks. Yet one of the missing puzzle pieces is connecting machine and human sensors together to achieve finer grained data. Recent innovations recommend participatory sensing through mobile technology as scalable and cost-effective micro-solution that companies could consider integrating into their HSE management systems.

The increasing ubiquity of mobile technology across the demographic and geographic spectrum and the proliferation of cellular infrastructure make it increasingly possible to minimize the marginal costs of data collection from large groups and over large areas with little incremental cost. Participatory Sensing, which emphasizes the involvement of workers, citizens and community groups in the process of sensing and documenting their environment, if properly adapted to the particular challenges of HSE safety, can become an integral part of a company’s risk mitigating procedures.

The innovation and power in participatory sensing through mobile phones lies in leveraging the pervasiveness of mobile technology to collect information at scale at a lower marginal cost, while observing, documenting, and acting on issues that matter to particular individuals. In HSE monitoring, participatory sensing through mobile phones allow for observations revealed by community members and/or the workforce to be integrated with scientific data on air, water or soil quality collected using mobile sensors, creating comprehensive feedbacks which can help mitigate and respond to safety risks associated with an individual’s health faster and more effectively.  The following are three practical examples of how machine and human sensors could be integrated aiding HSE monitoring for subcontractors, workers, and communities.

One of the great challenges in the industry is related to the limited standardization across the operational chain of a company’s environmental monitoring procedures, resulting in patchy environmental risk assessments at the site level. As a high proportion of sub-contractors tend not to receive similar training as company employees, the overall resulting level of environmental information as well as the level of empowerment to send feedback about their environment is low, even though companies have invested in training their own personnel. Participatory sensing can help to overcome this challenge by allowing all actors involved in the operational activities to collect similar levels of environmental data, simply, throughout the site, therefore contributing to an improved monitoring of standard environmental indicators at relatively low marginal costs.

Aside from aiding environmental monitoring, mobile sensors can improve health and safety aspects for employees exposed to challenging and exceptional working conditions. Workers can have their mobile phones fitted with sensors which continuously collect data on relevant environmental indicators such as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, dust levels, or noise levels. The mobile phone’s inherent mobility and the continuous data collection aspect at multiple data points allows for large geographic areas to be covered. Furthermore, it allows for the observation of cumulative environmental impacts and the identification of unpredictable events such as accidental pollution, which can seldom be detected by static stations. Early detection and warning of unsafe environmental conditions can help workers protect themselves while automatically sending SMS warnings to a centralized system. Also, environmental data profiles for each mobile user can be linked to personal health profiles helping employers monitor and protect the health and safety of high risk employees as well as allowing for a deeper evaluation of HSE aspects that were previously overlooked by monitoring the direct relationship between the health and safety of humans linked to their environment.

Beyond focusing on the workforce, communities around sites can also benefit from participatory sensing. For instance, a farmer can submit a grievance by SMS related to crop failure due to water quality issues near a mining site, as well as sending information on the water quality found at the site. Mobosens  and Nexleaf , for example, have developed water quality control mobile sensors and the added innovation of participatory sensing lies in linking the “perception data” from the individual with hard data from the mobile sensors, therefore allowing companies to prioritize incoming grievances more effectively, expediting responses to grievances. By containing risk at early stages companies can save on social and environmental remedial costs incurred if problems were to be addressed with delay, or not at all.

With this in mind, there are also a few limitations to consider at this point. Most important, mobile sensing at this stage is not capable of accurate source readings with “dumb” mobile phones, which limits its effectiveness in rural regions and low-income countries where many operational sites tend to be located. One solution to partially overcome this limitation is to leverage the inherent mobility and scalability of mobile sensing to collect data at scale, and integrate this with the accuracy of static monitoring stations. The resulting “picture” would reveal finer-grained measurements, allowing for a more dynamic analysis of environmental trends.

As collecting environmental performance indicators is increasingly becoming a crucial element of health and safety monitoring and an important aspect of key performance indicators in the extractive sector, participatory mobile sensing tools are one way to improve the level and accuracy of a company’s risk management.

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