By Jonathan Rowland
COVID-19 May Have A Positive Long-Term Impact On Health And Safety In The Cement Industry.
‘Build Back Better’ is the slogan being used both here in the UK, where I write, and by the new Biden administration, as the impetus for post-pandemic recovery. In the cement industry, one area in which there is the opportunity to do so is the one most directly related to the pandemic: health and safety.
There are two aspects to this, as Ian Riley, CEO of the World Cement Association, explained. The first and more tangible is the impact COVID-19 has had on manning levels at cement plants, particularly in regions of the world where these are typically high. In India, for example, companies have had to learn to operate plants with far fewer people. “As the complexity of safety management is almost a direct function of the number of people on site, the fewer there are, the simpler safety management becomes,” Riley said.
The second, more intangible, aspect is the impact COVID-19 has had on our consciousness of health and safety issues. “Good health and safety is ultimately about building good habits,” continued Riley. “You can provide people with all of the knowledge about safe working practices and put in place all of the regulations and guidelines, but unless people start to make decisions with safety in mind, it is not going to make an impact.” But these habits can take a long time to develop.
Take an example from a different sector: road traffic safety. In the UK, in 2000, the government launched its Think! campaign to significantly reduce the number of those killed or seriously injured in road traffic accidents by 40%, and 50% for children, over a 10-year period. The campaign had three components: enforcement, engineering and education. The last of these “came down to the need to generate self-awareness amongst road users [to counter] autopilot behavior which often militates against proper concentration and appropriate response”.1
Running for a decade, the Think! campaign ultimately hit its targets. And today the UK has among the highest road safety records in the world with only 3.1 road traffic deaths per 100,000 of population in 2016.2 But it has been a long journey and one that began long before the Think! campaign: the first Highway Code, a set of information, advice, guides and mandatory rules for road users, was published as far back in 1931.
Back to the cement industry. Could COVID-19 provide an experience that really accelerates safety consciousness, compressing into a much shorter period of time, progress that might typically take years, or even decades? Riley thinks it could: “The pandemic is changing how people think about health and safety. People are becoming more aware of how their decisions impact their own health and safety and the health and safety of others.” This is the Holy Grail of safety management and its most difficult challenge: creating a culture in which health and safety is the first thing on people’s minds when making decisions.
Technology is also helping. With the development of Industry 4.0, workers at a plant can be much more connected to offsite technical expertise, for example, through the use of augmented reality headsets that allow two-way visual and verbal communication.3 This facilitates the deployment of expertise on site and brings inherent safety advantages, according to Riley:
“Some aspects of safety are very technical. This is especially true of maintenance-related safety, where the issues are a step beyond the common sense measures you may expect for road traffic safety or working at heights. It requires a deep understanding of the technology and interconnection between systems. Being able to connect to a subject-matter expert, as you are undertaking the maintenance, is therefore a real advantage.”
We will have to wait for the statistics before a true assessment of the pandemic’s impact on health and safety can be made. But Riley is confident that “there will be an improvement.” Here then, at least, there is hope the industry can indeed build back better.
- NSMC, ‘Showcase: Think!’: https://thensmc.com/resources/showcase/think .
- WHO, Estimated road traffic death rate (per 2. 100,000 population): https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/indicators/indicator-details/GHO/estimated-road-traffic-death-rate-(per-100-000-population)
- The use of augmented reality field glasses was discussed at a WCA Virtual Member Forum in November 2020: https://www.worldcementassociation.org/wca-media/videos-and-clips/wca-virtual-member-forum-intro-demo-of-augmented-reality-field-glasses