The recent revelation that OSHA used Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to inspect nine facilities in 2018 was seen as cause for concern by many EHS and safety professionals.
Presently, OSHA drone inspections require the consent of the employer, and have so far only been used to investigate accident sites too dangerous for human inspectors to enter, such as oil drilling rig fires and chemical plant explosions.
However, the agency is currently seeking authorization to operate drones nationwide, and could easily expand the program to include routine inspections of facilities. Due to the capability of camera-carrying UAVs to uncover more potential violations than their human counterparts could, some attorneys have already begun encouraging employers to consider withholding consent for drone inspections.
Yet, it would be reductive to focus entirely on the risks which drones present to employers, when the technology is also capable of improving EHS in a variety of ways across a wide range of industries, specifically in the area of worker safety.
UAVs have certain obvious beneficial or benign purposes, such as package delivery and aerial photography. At the same time, they also pose a few undeniable risks, including the potential to cause damage to a commercial airliner - which is why it is illegal to operate a drone within five miles of an airport.
For employers, drones present something of a double-edged sword. Increasingly invasive inspections could open businesses up to more fines, yet might also lead to the discovery of genuinely concerning hazards that could have otherwise gone undetected.
Along those lines, EHS Daily Advisor compiled a list of ways in which drones could specifically improve worker safety, some speculative and some already being put into practice, which include:
Drones can reduce the need for workers to expose themselves to fall risks.
Many of the uses for drones involve conducting certain high-altitude inspections or tasks that would otherwise require workers to climb to dangerous heights. Considering the fact that Fall Protection has been OSHA's most frequently cited violation for eight consecutive years, any technology that reduces the need to put workers in danger of falling could greatly reduce a company's liability.
Other ways in which drones could improve health and safety may seem less apparent, in part because they require more specialized type of eye in the sky.
Drones equipped with Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) cameras can detect changes in heat, which allow them to detect emissions irregularities in plants and pipelines. Uncovering dangerous hidden gas leaks can prove to be one of the hidden safety advantages of a drone inspection.
Of course, drones are not entirely without safety risks of their own. Though unmanned, the aircrafts are operated remotely by human pilots, and are therefore susceptible to human error. Certain protocols, including never flying directly over people or allowing the UAV to leave the pilot's visual line-of-sight, must be observed at all times.
Yet when properly equipped and operated, drones have the ability to be a boon for EHS management, and not just an instrument of overly invasive OSHA inspections.