Being human is the best and worst thing about health and safety. Being human means having the ability to learn, assess, adapt and make decisions based on both rational and emotional drivers. However, this same capability can also get us into trouble, for example, when work as planned can differ markedly from work as done.
The rise of Artificial Intelligence gets a fair bit of media from time to time, with the idea that in the near future activities like driving a car or flying a plane or even building a house will be taken over by computers and smart machines. But will a machine digger driver be any “safer” than human operator?
If you want reliability and efficiency, then a machine is the way to go. A machine can be programmed to do a task with 100% reliability and no need for coffee breaks. However, if what your task requires is adaptability, flexibility, and the ability to change in the light of variability in environmental, social, and any other conditions, then you need a human. But, because of this adaptability, humans will never be 100% reliable 100% of the time.
The question health and Safety people should be asking themselves is this. Are my health and safety procedures designed for humans or machines? Do they require 100% compliance 100% of the time for workers to be safe? Or do they include fail-safe mechanisms to account for human variability. And when things go wrong are the questions that are asked concerned with “who failed” or with “what failed”?
These thoughts were prompted by an event I witnessed last week. This was the Master Builders Apprentice of the Year contestants competing in the practical challenge. In this event they were given a small pack of wood, a set of plans, and a time limit, to construct a bookcase/shoe rack with mitred joins, 2 sets of off-set shelves, and no margin for error in cutting the wood.
The contestants had to bring their own tools, and before getting the challenge each one laid these down methodically in their assigned area. There were drills and drivers, skill-saws and clamps, spirit levels and T-Squares, drill bits and screws all waiting to be called into duty.
The bell rang, the contestants were given their plans, and then silence. For the next 20 minutes or so not a single saw blade touched a piece of wood or a hammer hit a nail. It occurred to me that all the tools the contestants had laid in front of them were completely redundant without the use of the most significant tool in their belt, their ability to think. The contestants who put more time upfront in the planning had a much easier time in the construction phase. I cannot imagine any machine able to complete the task that the apprentices were required to.
This is what separates us from the machines, and what we need to harness to improve health and safety outcomes. More thought, more engagement, and more recognition of the human condition.
I have been awaiting the arrival of the flying car for over 40 years now, as promised by a cartoon TV show called “The Jetson’s”. I am sure that when it eventually arrives it will be piloted by a computer, but I will still be wearing a parachute.
Paul Duggan, General Manager