Industry 4.0 implications for health and safety project

‘Industry 4.0’, the name given to the emerging use of a suite of technologies across many industry sectors, is revolutionising industrial operations in workplaces. Definitions of industry 4.0 technologies often refer to the concept of cyber-physical systems. These are essentially networked integrations of complex physical plant and machinery, sensors and software that communicate and share data wirelessly via the internet.

Industry 4.0 comprises both ‘enabling’ technologies and ‘actioning’ technologies. Examples of enabling technologies include enterprise IT systems, cloud computing, wireless internet, advanced algorithms, virtual and augmented reality, smart sensor networks, wearables, positioning and smart mobile devices.

Actioning technologies are those able to deliver specific tasks, whether physical or cognitive, such as robots, cobots, exoskeletons, 3D printers, process control systems, autonomous vehicles, aerial drones, intelligent agents and expert systems.

Used collectively, these technologies are transforming how workers, equipment and processes interact in industrial workplaces. They are enhancing the delivery of complex process operations through the seamless, end-to-end completion of the individual component tasks that make them up.

Previously, delivery of such tasks would have been reliant on a significant human and often manual component. In the era of industry 4.0, such tasks are technologically supported and often fully automated.

Industry drivers

The rise in use of industry 4.0 technologies in workplaces is impacting how health and safety is practiced. The consensus is that this is only likely to gather pace. In fact, in some workplaces, industry 4.0 technologies are already being used directly to improve the management of health and safety risks. Examples include the use of wearable devices and sensors to monitor the locations of workers relative to workplace hazards, sensors on safety critical plant to inform maintenance and servicing schedules, or aerial drones to carry out visual inspection of safety critical assets.

More commonly however, the technologies are likely to be used for optimising operations and delivering improvements in process efficiency. Where this is happening, the potential for new health and safety risks to be introduced into workplaces is beginning to be recognised.

Three characteristics of industry 4.0 technologies are considered fundamental:

1) the wireless networks and sensors constituting systems and associated data flows
2) the processes or operations supported by the systems, or tasks delivered, and
3) the plant/hardware and supporting software, controlling processes and operations, and actioning tasks.

Thinking about the technologies in this way, the constituent data, its effective handling and analysis, the generation of actionable insights from it, and the communication of these insights to deliver an action can all be central to effective deployment.

However, many of these pose significant practical challenges to industry. For example, big data type challenges abound, including the handling and storage of large volumes of multi-format data, working with data streams, using analytics effectively to make sense of it, including in real time, and getting the right insights to the right people communicated at the right time and in the right way.

In some application areas, ethics, privacy, data security and data governance challenges must also be addressed. The deployment of industry 4.0 technologies specifically for health and safety purposes is by no means immune to such challenges. How they might be dealt with is the subject of a recently commenced project being undertaken as part of HSE’s Discovering Safety programme. This five-year research programme is supported by a grant from Lloyd’s Register Foundation and is being delivered in partnership with the University of Manchester.

AI possibilities

Aims and objectives

The project’s primary aim is to canvass views from organisations currently using or planning to use industry 4.0 technologies to support their health and safety strategy. It is also interested in hearing from organisations who are using the technologies for other reasons, such as to increase productivity or enhance efficiency, and where such use might potentially impact on health and safety, either positively or negatively.


Research approaches

The project is starting with a short online survey aimed at willing individuals from organisations operating across a range of sectors. The survey will measure the extent to which different industry 4.0 technologies are being used in different contexts and to collect evidence on key challenges associated with effective deployment. Identified challenges will then be considered in more detail at industry workshops, with the outputs being used to help shape future research into possible solutions.

The key data challenges faced by organisations when deploying industry 4.0 technologies in the following specific contexts are of particular interest:

  1. use of networked sensors on plant (e.g. to inform condition-based maintenance of assets)
  2. use of wearable devices on workers (e.g. to support worker surveillance)
  3. use of positioning technologies on workers and/or assets (e.g. to locate workers relative to hazards)
  4. use of drones and autonomous vehicles for remote inspection (e.g. to assess the structural integrity of assets)
  5. use of advanced analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning/deep learning algorithms in automated process control or operational decisions more generally (e.g. to automate process control tasks, predict health and safety critical endpoints)

The typical data challenges in scope of the project include the following:

  1. Big data challenges (e.g. dealing with large volumes of data, streaming data, multi-format data, focusing on value data)
  2. Data governance challenges (e.g. data quality, data availability, data usability and data security challenges)
  3. Analytics challenges (i.e. use of correct analytic methods, e.g. descriptive, diagnostic, predictive, prescriptive, operational)
  4. Actioning challenges (i.e. getting right insights to right people at right time in right way)
  5. AI challenges (e.g. aligning goals, training datasets, algorithmic performance, deployment, unforeseen consequences) 

Key benefits

Industry 4.0 technologies could potentially revolutionise health and safety performance across industrial workplaces if the challenges associated with their effective deployment can be addressed. The work of the Discovering Safety programme in this area seeks to help characterise such challenges and shape the development of effective solutions.


For more information on the project including how you might be able to contribute to it, please contact the research team at the following email address:

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