The Future of Operational Safety in a More Remote World: Q&A with Alexander Stevenson

June 10, 2021

This June is National Safety Month, an annual awareness campaign established by the National Safety Council in 1996. To help increase safety awareness, the NSC is focusing on a different safety topic every week. This week’s focus is “Address Ongoing COVID-19 Safety Concerns.”

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic deeply impacted operational safety. Many organizations had to adapt their operations at an accelerated pace, as remote visibility became a necessity. Even as we enter this new post-vaccine phase, the pandemic has altered the status quo, and safety leaders and CIOs are adapting their safety strategies to ensure they are prepared for the future.

We sat down with Alexander Stevenson, VP of Product Management at Samsara, to get his take on some of the biggest questions and challenges facing safety leaders today—including accelerated digitalization, advances in AI and computer vision, and more. Read on to see his perspective on the future of operational safety.

Alexander Stevenson, VP of Product Management at Samsara

How have you seen safety leaders adapt their operations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

While a lot of people were stuck at home during 2020, logistics companies and drivers were, if anything, busier. Global supply chains had to react to panic buying and shortages, and as more goods were purchased online, these companies became even more critical to our society. As a result, there was increased pressure on these essential businesses to be more efficient. The realities of COVID-19 added to this challenge. Standard safety procedures—such as driver ride-alongs or on-premise safety coaching—were no longer easily done in person. Organizations were encouraged to adapt as much as possible to be remote.

In effect, this accelerated a pre-existing trend: digital transformation. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, safety leaders were already adopting new technologies to gain better visibility into operational safety and automate previously manual processes. During the pandemic, systems that allowed for remote visibility and safety coaching became much more attractive and valuable, since safety leaders were no longer just limited by time, but also by COVID-19. 

We can see this accelerated digital transformation in our data. From January 2020 to March 2021, we saw an 18% increase in usage of our Driver App and a 45% increase in digital document submissions (analyzed across a sample cohort of thousands of customers to control for new customer growth). This reflects not only how companies adapted to the immediate impact of COVID-19 (by shifting away from in-person interactions and paper documents), but also how they are increasingly embracing these technologies even as we look forward to a post-COVID world. Not only do digital workflows enable safer operations, but they are also more efficient due to the automation of previously time-consuming procedures. The resulting gains in safety, efficiency, and profitability are driving the accelerated digital transformation we’re seeing right now.

What does operational safety look like in a post-pandemic world?

No one knows for sure what the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be, but when it comes to operational safety, one thing is clear: trends that were already present before the pandemic have been accelerated by the events of the past year.

Firstly, we’re seeing accelerated digitalization across worker, vehicle, equipment, and worksite safety. For many safety leaders, the pandemic didn’t fundamentally alter their goals or priorities, but it did lead to faster adoption of digital tools in order to enable remote operations during COVID-19. Once organizations implemented these systems, the benefits were clear. For example, a video telematics solution can sift through thousands of hours of driving and identify the few minutes of safety-critical footage, such as mobile phone usage or tailgating. Being able to coach drivers on these instances without sifting through other footage is a huge time saver for coaches and also means drivers get the personalized video-based coaching that directly improves outcomes. As a result, we’re seeing companies increasingly embrace the digitalization of various safety workflows, even as they return to other pre-pandemic norms. I believe this is a trend that will persist even in a post-pandemic world.

"For many safety leaders, the pandemic didn’t fundamentally alter their goals or priorities, but it did lead to faster adoption of digital tools in order to enable remote operations during COVID-19."

Furthermore, as a result of this accelerated digitalization, I predict we will also see more positivity around the word “safety.” Video-based safety technologies make it possible to identify not just safety-critical events, but also moments of excellent driving or exemplary safety practices, which may have gone unnoticed before. Paired with the right reporting and coaching tools, this enables organizations to recognize and reward employees in the field for their safe practices, rather than only coaching them on their mistakes. Ultimately, this is leading to more engaged employees, better retention, and a more positive safety culture at organizations that build these coaching and recognition tools into their day-to-day workflows.

What technological innovations will be most impactful on operational safety in the coming years?

Before edge computing, our ability to prevent incidents in real time was limited. After-the-fact video processing could identify patterns, but there was no way to detect and alert people to risks as they happened. New advances in AI have allowed fast progress in computer vision, and we can now run very sophisticated algorithms “at the edge,” which is to say, in our cameras themselves, without having to send data to a data center for processing. 

What this means is that advanced dash cams, for example, are able to provide drivers with real-time alerts to safety situations like distracted driving and tailgating. The technology for this requires AI-powered computer vision to digitally “see” what’s happening, decide a situation is potentially dangerous, and then alert a driver, thanks to software running on the dash cam itself.

This has already revolutionized driver safety by making it possible to alert drivers and prevent incidents before they occur. Now, many organizations are extending this proactive approach beyond the cab. For example, we’re applying the same AI used in our dash cams to IP security cameras, preventing incidents within warehouses and other on-site facilities. Over time, advances in AI and computer vision will lead to a fundamental shift from reactive to preventative safety management across all areas of operations.

"Over time, advances in AI and computer vision will lead to a fundamental shift from reactive to preventative safety management across all areas of operations."

What should safety leaders and CIOs keep an eye on to ensure their organizations are well-equipped for the future?

As leaders continue to focus on building a culture of safety within their organization, it’s critical not to overlook the importance of training, communication, and ongoing coaching when introducing any new technology. Across our community, we’ve seen time and time again that effective change management is what ultimately leads to successful adoption of new technologies and meaningful improvements in safety outcomes.

Just as important for long-term success is planning for the influx of data that will come. In the next five years, the convergence of computer vision applications with additional sensor data will provide further contextual information, unlocking even better visibility and truly transforming safety operations. But as organizations become more saturated with data, finding ways to connect the dots between that data and extract actionable insights will become more critical—and more difficult.

"In the next five years, the convergence of computer vision applications with additional sensor data will provide further contextual information, unlocking even better visibility and truly transforming safety operations."

That’s why it’s so important to choose technology partners that aren’t just advancing individual technologies or solutions in a silo, but are building systems to help connect and make sense of your data. This can come in many forms such as API and OEM integrations or big data analysis. Ultimately, the goal of more data should be better, more actionable visibility into your business, so you can manage safer and more profitable operations.

Register for our National Safety Month webinar series

Want to hear more safety tips from our community? Join us for our live webinar series this June to get tips on embedding a safety-first mindset across your organization and hear directly from industry leaders about their safety best practices. Register now to save your spot.

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