Amid ongoing fourth industrial revolution, companies across the world are exploring robotics, automation, machine learning, and AI to reimagine the way they do business. These new technologies offer opportunities to increase productivity and efficiency when the labor is in short supply and the workforce is aging. While security dimension of the new technologies, especially that of connected devices, attracts much attention, safety dimension of the new technologies and tools are often overlooked.

Safer workplace increases productivity

Accidents, injuries and machine breakdown all undermine productivity of a factory. Real-time monitoring data collected by IIoT devices can be used to replace or repair the machine or its parts before serious breakdown takes place. Likewise, wearable devices can be used to monitor the health condition of the workers as well as the environmental conditions at the workplace to prevent accidents. Potential safety-related benefits of connected devices include the following:

  • Manufacturers can attach sensors on machinery. These sensors will monitor the operation of the machines real-time and detect if machines show a sign of breakdown or malfunction. The information will be sent to inspectors so that the officers can take immediate measures to prevent accidents and avoid serious incidents.
  • Providing workers with wearables can be one of the best ways to ensure their health and safety in the workplace. In mining and oil/gas industry, for example, using wearable devices to track temperature changes, humidity levels, harmful gases and/or chemical exposure is becoming a common practice as a measure to improve workers’ safety. For example, “connected worker” system developed by Vandrico Solutions, a wearable/IoT company in Vancouver, Canada, monitors data such as individual miners’ exposure to CO2 or SO2 to ensure they stay within safe exposure limits. Also, a team of researchers at MIT produced a connected safety jacket and shoes. Weight sensors are built-in in the soles of the connected safety shoes which vibrate – giving warning to the workers that they are lifting something too heavy and potentially causes injuries.
  • During a disaster, IoT can be of great help in ensuring speedy rescue operations. Sensors embedded almost everywhere will collect real-time data from the working site. This data can be used by the rescue team to plan and conduct rescue and recovery operations on time. The benefit is significant because the chances of saving the lives of workers is much higher when the rescue and recovery operations are conducted quickly.
Safety of IIoT devices and software

As above, connected devices offer a number of safety benefits. Having said that; however, it is also true that the IIoT introduces new, sometimes unanticipated, safety risks. The number of connected devices in industrial environments drastically increased in recent years. The application of these technologies has also expanded to many sectors, including safety-critical areas such as onboard flight software. Today, connected devices and their software run core processes in aircraft, chemical and nuclear plants, building and public-safety alarms, and self-driving cars. “Click Here to Kill Everybody – Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World”, a recent book by Bruce Schneier vividly shows the safety risk in the world where everything is controlled by software.

When safety of the software is discussed, the topic of cybersecurity, rather than the quality or safety of the software, often takes the center place. Kate Stewart, senior director of strategic programs at the Linux Foundation and a finalist for the IoT World Leader of the Year Award said, “I think the software world has woken up to security. I don’t think they’ve woken up yet to safety constraints.”

As the priority shifts to speed, adaptability and early delivery, more and more projects adopt agile software development rather than traditional waterfall development. The agile process, which advocates adaptive planning and evolutionary development, is quite different from the traditional development approach adopted in aviation or healthcare industry where rigorous testing to ensure safety is of paramount importance. When safety-critical software is in question, it is essential that safety considerations be not sidelined by the need for early delivery. Linux Foundation is hosting the the Zephyr Project, an open source collaborative collaboration with the aim of building a best-in-class small, scalable, real-time operating system (RTOS) for connected resource-constrained devices, built be secure and safe.

The need for updating safety management method

One of the challenges in this field is the fact that most safety experts are not software experts. The language around the existing standards in the safety field is 20 to 30 years old. In other words, the development of safety field does not keep pace with the speed of software development. “Will a software update cause unexpected safety-related problems?” This is one example of safety questions that are not anticipated in traditional safety fields. Of course, software developers working in critical infrastructure do considerable analysis before they release software, but initial assumption or analysis on safety might become invalid after repeated software updates. Another issue is the traditionally closed nature of security standards. There are many safety standards that can be used and referenced today, but none of them is open source. Software engineers who are familiar with the open source development might be unwilling to pay $3,000 to look at these standards. These cultural gaps could undermine potential collaboration between safety and software experts. Coordinated efforts among experts in safety, software and standards/regulations is required to address these barriers and tackle with safety risk of software and connected devices,