Suzie Housley, Ph.D.
The introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) into industry has been a fast-moving, recent phenomenon. Moving past rote tasks and basic automation, some are now starting to use AI to actually “think” in place of humans. A top research executive from Gartner recently stated that eventually “every job will be impacted by AI”. With all the hype, it’s tempting to jump on board and ignore potential pitfalls. That’s not to say that AI does not hold promise for the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) industry. For example, advanced pattern recognition and predictive analytics could go a long way towards detecting and preventing hazards. However, a key to success as we embrace this new technology is in recognizing and working within its limits.
In the EHS industry, we need to show compliance with an ever growing and changing code of regulations to the letter. Beyond that, we serve a larger purpose to keep workers, communities, and the environments that surround them safe, not just today but for years to come. Parts of this mission are well suited for AI applications, and others are not. While some people are ready to dive in head first, and some are taking a more skeptical approach, it's safe to say that the care taken when implementing this technology will be a deciding factor in whether the ever-expanding growth of AI within our industry is for better, or worse.
If you are curious about supplementing your EHS program with AI, here are 3 key things to consider:
Most open-source mass language models used in AI rely on general knowledge-base, making it hard for them to detect the intricacies of a highly specific industry such as EHS. While on the surface, EHS regulations can seem relatively standard. Understanding how to apply them in changing locations and/or escalating situations is not so simple. It is this nuanced application, the tackling of complex questions that require deep understanding, that cannot be replicated by AI.
Further, every company has a unique safety culture that requires time and proper training to adapt. A task such as generating a list of OSHA requirements is something an AI tool could easily accomplish; however, determining the best way to evaluate and meet those standards at your specific facility, with your specific team requires human intervention. In fact, it’s been documented that input from a diverse set of (human!) team members helps to improve innovation, productivity, and future planning within an EHS team. The level of complex understanding needed to do this within each unique industry, and each unique workplace, cannot be replicated by an out-of-the-box AI tool.
If we are trusting AI to synthesize and summarize information for us, how do we know the feedback we’re getting is good? AI feats are neat but in the EHS world, we need tools that we can trust. We have legal issues, and more importantly, lives in our hands. I’m sure by now all of us have heard about how Chat GPT could pass the Bar better than many trained lawyers. However, in practice, when the technology was used to replace a lawyer, the results were not so stunning. AI could not stand up to a real world test and, in this case, included false information in a legal filing. In the EHS industry, we need practical guidance for activities happening every day. For example, understanding exactly what safety codes apply to a particular facility and then what actions are required based on those codes is a complicated process. While AI could certainly help to get the ball rolling, trained experts are required to review, edit, and evaluate output to ensure proper procedures are implemented.
A 5-year study published in the Harvard Business Review found that human skills simply cannot be “bot-sourced” and concluded that the key to making AI a success in any industry is…people! Specifically, AI falls short on tasks that require critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, and intuition. These skills are often referred to as “soft skills” or even “personality traits”. In essence, these are the skills that make us human and set what we can do apart from anything an AI tool is able to accomplish.
Interestingly, the demand for soft skills in the EHS market is growing in step with the rise of AI. Amy Harper, senior director of workplace training and consulting at the National Safety Council stated that soft skills are “ absolutely critical if you’re going to be as effective as you can be”. I’m sure we can all think of time during an inspection or even mid-incident when soft skills such as intuition or collaboration were just as critical as our technical training.
As with many things, the key to embracing a technology like AI is balance. AI does hold promise, and the EHS world can certainly benefit from embracing this technology. If utilized as part of a team, AI could serve as a non-biased, never distracted aid to EHS professionals looking to reduce risks in the workplace. Key metrics, locations, or patterns that lead to elevated risk levels can be learned, detected, and eventually predicted. Using AI in this way, human resources are free to focus where they work best, evaluating real-world scenarios, driving the last mile of a project , and communicating outcomes to stakeholders. Michelle Tinsley, who founded a company aimed at recruiting and placing EHS professionals, has her eye on this evolving trend. After reviewing what thousands of companies and EHS professionals are looking for, she can say with certainty that AI is here to stay, but so is specialized training. It’s this combination that makes a program stronger.
At Dakota, our philosophy is that proactive EHS compliance is the foundation of operational excellence and corporate sustainability. Our EHS management solutions are designed with an intentional balance of technology and human expertise. This human expertise includes our team of regulatory experts, who’s human-translated regulatory content fuels our compliance management solutions. This curated content helps ensure that your staff are knowledgeable of the requirements and regulatory obligations that impact safety at their facilities. Additionally, our intuitive analytics and data exploration tools empower your staff to leverage their own domain expertise and site knowledge to proactively identify trends, flag safety concerns, and issue corrective actions to maintain a safe working environment for all.
Visit our Demo Library to learn how our solutions can help with your EHS compliance and sustainability programs.