OHS Canada | June 27, 2023 | By Alexandra Skinner/WorkSafeBC
Who could have predicted the dangers of electric vehicle batteries? How could we have known how to prevent musculoskeletal injuries in cannabis manufacturing when the industry was just starting? Did anyone consider the risks to workers associated with 3D printing?
For the past decade, WorkSafeBC’s Risk Analysis Unit (RAU) has been addressing workplace risks associated with emerging technologies and new industries. The RAU plays a crucial role in helping the organization understand the impact of evolving workplace technologies, processes, and innovations on occupational health and safety. By proactively identifying emerging risks that may not be evident from past incident or injury data, their goal is to find and control workplace risks before anyone is harmed.
“Our model provides a coordinated approach to risk analysis and reduction,” says Prescillia (Percy) Chua, Manager in the RAU. “This allows us to be nimble, enabling us to adapt and pivot when new information appears, or issues arise.”
For the past 10 years, the RAU has ventured into uncharted territories, shedding light on many emerging and unseen risks in a wide range of industries. Some of their most noteworthy projects have included new approaches in process safety management in pellet, chemical and other high-hazard process sectors; the risks of explosion and fire in lithium-ion batteries when towing or scrapping electric vehicles; carfentanyl exposure risks faced by health care workers; nanoparticle exposure in cosmetics manufacturing; and risks associated with industrial robots.
A multidisciplinary team with a proactive approach
A unique entity in Canada, the RAU is a multidisciplinary team within WorkSafeBC’s Prevention Services Division. The unit is made up of occupational health and safety specialists in industrial risk, occupational hygiene, ergonomics and human factors, analytics, and audiology.
To identify and understand emerging workplace risks, the RAU collects information from various sources, beginning internally within WorkSafeBC. The RAU analyzes claims and prevention data including information from prevention officers and claims staff, including occupational physicians. The team has also developed a Risk Assessment Portal.
“Prevention officers are often the first to hear of new or underserved workplace risks, but not everyone knows how to ensure that vital information gets passed along to the RAU,” explains Chua. “We developed the risk assessment portal as a straightforward way for anyone to submit a risk for review.”
“There are great examples of submissions that have started a project or an inspectional initiative, including fentanyl exposure to workers and toxic chemical exposure from cured in place piping operations,” says Jose Barranco, Manager in the RAU.
Once risks are identified, the RAU team works with other departments within WorkSafeBC’s Prevention Services Division to introduce changes to workplace health and safety, and potentially even help to form new regulations.
“We analyze the data we collect, but we are also a proactive prevention unit,” says Chua. “Field Prevention Officers are integrated into the team to provide consultation and education — and can also take enforcement action when risks reach an unacceptable level.”
Food truck project: From identification to communication
One 2019 project identified trends seen in the United States associated with food trucks, where propane leaks from fuel tanks were building inside the truck resulting in fires and explosions. As a result, the RAU performed focused inspections on food trucks in B.C. and partnered with Technical Safety BC to inspect food trucks at festivals.
A communications campaign was launched to promote the learnings from the project to mobile caterers, craft services in the movie and television industry, and remote kitchens in resource camps — specifically, how to inspect propane tanks and their connections.
“We also shared our findings with key stakeholders including food truck working groups, the Office of the Fire Commissioner, and relevant health and safety associations,” Chua says.
The intersection of AI and human expertise: Empowering decision-making
The RAU also use technology to source information and data from around the world— including working with other regulators from other countries, and scanning websites, journals, newsletters, databases, and other online sources for signals on industrial risks. To assist with this approach the team have capitalized on artificial intelligence, by developing a tool called Finding Risk in External News Data (FRIEND) to help identify and prioritize new workplace risks. FRIEND uses AI to scour the internet to build an internal risk registry, and RAU staff review this registry daily to uncover new risks and hazards and find potential trends and patterns.
The outputs from FRIEND are visualized in a dashboard giving the RAU insight into risk topic, geographical distribution, and more.
“When we brought in FRIEND, we significantly increased our dataset, and are now able to contextualize risks, which helps us make decisions on prioritizing risks,” says Barranco,
Chua notes that while AI is extremely helpful for data-driven guidance, it’s the people in the RAU who have a real impact.
“If we’re looking at a broad topic, like health and safety at a disaster site, we want to analyze trends,” she says. “A human lens is necessary to understand the landscape — which includes environmental influences, and political and legal considerations. It requires more thought and sometimes creativity to understand what drives the risks.”
It also requires an interdisciplinary approach to decide what steps to take after the data has been gathered. “We use FRIEND as a tool, but the AI is not making the final decisions for us,” notes Barranco. “There is always a human involved in the process and we run these decisions by a committee.”
The work of the RAU is, by definition, never-ending. “We recognize that there are some areas where we can drive risk down further, but there will always be new risks emerging” notes Chua. “Our role is perpetual — as workplaces evolve, so will we. The goal is to ensure workers come home safely at the end of the day — both today, tomorrow, and in the years to come.”
Alexandra Skinner is the manager, government and media relations at WorkSafeBC.