When the evacuation alarm sounds at a refinery in the oil sands of Alberta, the safety manager anxiously watches a computer screen as dozens of numbered icons move through a maze of aisles and congregate in three squares to the right of the screen. One lone icon, however, remains stationary. A worker is trapped inside the buildingperhaps unconscious, injured or worse.
Fortunately, this is just a simulation, using a new location-awareness services applicationa radio frequency identification (RFID) solution from IBM designed to help managers track the movement of workers in real time. In a real emergency, managers would be able to hand over the name and location of the lone worker to the rescue team and instantly account for every employee in each evacuation area. They'd also be able to evaluate whether any equipment is too close to hazardous zones.
According to the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, there were 1,097 workplace fatalities in Canada in 2005. Of those, more than 490 were accident-related. Not surprisingly, Statistics Canada figures show that on-the-job injuries are four times more likely among employees in trades, transport and equipment operations than among white collar workers.
With looming labour shortages and increasingly stringent safety regulations, businesses are looking for more creative ways to use technology to track workers, improve communications in remote areas and ultimately keep their people out of danger.
Companies have been using RFID in supply-chain and asset-management tracking for years now. But the latest application for the tiny radio-frequency tags is to track people and equipment in challenging workplaces, says Ray Paskauskas, an executive IT architect with IBM Canada. So-called active-tag RFID technology is proving to be a perfect fit for safety managers at oil refineries, airports and other potentially dangerous sites.
Unlike passive RFID tags, active tags are equipped with an embedded power source that can broadcast a signal to a reader. With IBM's Location Awareness Services, companies can attach active tags to name badges and equipment within a facility; a customized back-end system tracks them.
Managers can also add context to the information about location by using correlating identifiers. For example, in the event of an evacuation, not only can managers see whether anyone is still in the building but, they can also tell if employees are heading to the wrong exits, carrying hazardous equipment or entering a dangerous or restricted zone.
It's an improvement on the typical proximity cards used today, which require individuals to approach a reader and scan their cards in the event of an evacuation. Doing so presents a number of problems, says Paskauskas. "You're never sure everyone is accounted for in emergency situations. And the first thing a safety manager wants to know at those times is where people are and whether they're moving in the right direction."
The Electrical Safety Authority reports that from 1998 to 2006, 102 people died due to electrocution in Ontario. More than half were work-related and/or involved contact with electrical equipment.
Businesses looking for a less risky way to check temperature readings of machinery, electrical grids and other heat-generating applications can invest in hand-held thermal-imaging devices. Until recently, they cost tens of thousands of dollars, but in 2007 such equipment dropped below the $10,000 mark.
A thermal imaging device uses infrared sensors to detect temperature fluctuations from a distance. Temperature gradients are instantly displayed on an LCD screen, and workers can identify hot spots without touching any surfaces. Unlike infrared guns that check a single temperature at a single point, a thermal-imaging device can do the job of thousands of guns at once to create a multicoloured image in seconds.
"The only option outside of thermal imaging is to use some sort of probe that comes in contact with equipment, or to shut down everything so we can do measurements," says David Green, director of marketing for Fluke Electronics Canada, based in Mississauga. "This type of technology can certainly help improve safety for workers alone in the field or doing inspections at industrial sites by eliminating the human contact."
Whether a full maintenance team is working on an oil rig or a single worker is conducting repairs on a rail line, legislation requires that they be provided with the means and resources to communicate at all times. Doing so, however, is not easy because in some areas cellphone coverage and land lines are non-existent. Satellite phones can provide voice and basic data services, but they are generally too expensive to give to all workers. They're also of little use if workers can't identify their location in the event of an emergency.
Enter SPOT, a seven-ounce, bright-orange-and-black device touted as the world's first "satellite messenger." At a price of less than $200 plus a $50 annual subscription, this inexpensive and easy-to-use, one-way communications tool includes a GPS tracker that's accurate to within 10 feet. The Canadian-made device generates signals at the touch of a button that can be sent directly to a designated e-mail address, mobile phone or a global 911 service provider, depending on the level of urgency. "SPOT is a simple and easy way to minimize the risks associated with individuals working alone," says Steven Bell, head of sales and marketing for SPOT Inc., based in Mississauga. "And it helps organizations meet legislated, mandatory check-in reporting requirements for workers in the field."
Buttons include an "okay" feature that allows workers to instantly send his GPS co-ordinates. For non-critical but urgent situations, the "help" button sends a message every five minutes for an hour, with the person's GPS co-ordinates. The 911 button sends a message every five minutes over seven days, directly to a worldwide 911 facility, which determines the person's location and dispatches the nearest search-and-rescue service.
SPOT also has a tracking feature that can be activated to send a user's GPS co-ordinates every 10 minutes to a websitean invaluable tool for workers mapping a safe route through a dangerous area, since they can pass on the details for others to follow.
Some jobs are just too dangerous for humans to handle. That's where ProMation Engineering comes in. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. is test-driving a prototype robotics application from Mississauga-based ProMation that uses new laser-sensing technology in which a machine performs key functions of reactor refurbishment.
"In the past, it has been easier to build a new reactor than to change components, because of the risks," says Adam Bakhtari, ProMation's director of research and development. These days, however, new technology has become so precise that it can be used to perform what were once strictly hands-off functions, like cutting welds and pipes, and removing and replacing reactor plugs in radioactive zones.
Laser sensors emit and collect reflected signals much like sonar does underwater, determining distances and surface roughness. The system is small, inexpensive and accurate to within two- to three-thousandths of an inch. "Ten years ago, a high-end sensor would be 10 times the cost and would need a box the size of a room," says Bakhtari. "Now it's about $500 a sensor and the size of a matchbox."
The technology removes operators entirely from the process. In fact, they can perform their duties from anywhere in the world, as long as they have a Web-based interface and a monitor.
Since there's no shortage of workers today who have to work around pipes carrying hazardous chemicals or combustible materials, the system will require just a few modifications to make it applicable to the oil and gas industry, says Bakhtari. "People will be able to go in and cut a line without an operator being exposed," he says. "It beats sending someone in with a gas mask to do the job."