IEC publishes white paper on Safety 2.0

The Internet of Things, big data, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence are transforming the connection between technology and people. It may even be possible that a new dimension is added to machines in an area traditionally the reserve of humans: intelligence. While machine intelligence is not equivalent to human intelligence, it is known that unforeseen consequences for humans inevitably emerge when new technology is introduced.

Image of the cover of the IEC White Paper
Safety in the future

As more intelligent machines are integrated into factories, logistics, mobility and healthcare, the need to ensure safety for people working with machines becomes increasingly important. New and complex safety requirements are necessary to address the expansion of intelligent systems to ensure that humans remain at the heart of the new human-machine relationship.

To better understand safety in the digital environment, the IEC has published a new white paper, Safety in the future. It references current trends that are pioneering innovative safety solutions for the future and introduces a collaborative framework between workers, machines and their environment. According to the white paper, achieving safety in the new human-machine relationship in the face of intelligent machines is no small feat; the standardization community can make a real difference by putting safety of humans first.

Current approaches to safety

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 2,78 million workers die each year from occupational accidents and work-related diseases. However, this figure does not include non-fatal accidents, nor does it include worker fatalities in developing countries where the fatal accident rate is assumed to be much higher. Fatal work-related accidents remain a serious problem.

According to Coen van Gulijk, who served as the lead project partner for the white paper, “The current approach to safety puts in place processes that protect workers by analysing risks, putting preventions in place and minimizing the effects of accidents should they occur. But that may not be enough when intelligent machines adapt their behaviour.”

Within the IEC, safety has been at the forefront of its activities. “More than a dozen technical committees have been established where safety is the central focus of their standardization work. This focus dates back to 1926 when the first technical committee addressing human-machine safety was established”, notes van Gulijk.

Increasingly, the IEC has focused on fostering a horizontal approach to safety standards. This has been applied by the IEC Advisory Committee on safety (ACOS) through its Guide 104 which defines the rules for developing horizontal safety publications.

New trends impacting safety

Intelligent machines are the primary drivers of the digital transformation. They facilitate the gathering and storage of vast volumes of data. And, with powerful analytics, it becomes possible to use the raw data to interpret information, detect relationships between specified factors, take autonomous decisions and predict future trends. However, this raises concerns about privacy, data integrity, transparency and trustworthiness of new technologies. “It is especially difficult when machines start to make decisions autonomously that humans can get in trouble,” he says, “these decisions should take human safety into account which calls for a holistic approach to safety.”

But many existing safety standards covering specific types of machines or products do not yet include holistic safety aspects. According to van Gulijk, “With the introduction of intelligent machines, safety standards that only focus on technical components may hinder innovation and require updates with increasing frequency. The standardization community will need to address safety using a holistic approach”.

Adopting a new approach to safety, known as collaborative safety, may be one way to address this issue. Collaborative safety calls for humans and machines to share digital information, communicate and collaborate. It leverages digital technologies and human-machine interaction to support industries and economies that are built upon digital applications.

“The principle of collaborative safety is becoming increasingly widespread and, as an impact on standardization, it may allow for the inclusion of a wider range of stakeholders,” notes van Gulijk.

Introducing a new framework for safety

The white paper introduces a collaborative framework, known as the tripartite system of safety, which proposes a systems approach to examining the key elements of safety. The collaboration is made possible by information flows going back and forth between the different intelligent agents of the system: human workers, smart machines, and the IT-enabled environment in which they operate.

The type of information that each part of the system receives is dependent upon their requirements. For example, machines could be provided with static information about a worker’s qualifications or experiences as well as dynamic information about the worker’s real-time stress or fatigue levels. Information that a worker may need about the machine could include functioning status or when a machine decides to perform a different movement.

As van Gulijk remarks, “Human-machine interactions are fundamentally changing as intelligent tasks are shared. This will require a systematic view of the workplace and will impact our current approach to safety”.

Role for standardization and conformity assessment

According to the white paper, achieving safety in the future when taking into consideration intelligent machines will require support from the standardization and conformity assessment communities. The introduction of intelligent ICT systems necessitates the development of new types of standards which, in turn, could lead to innovative developments in conformity assessment. For instance, digital twinning and a more widespread use of machine-readable documents could be proposed.

The white paper highlights that standardization bodies may have an important role in facilitating social responsibility through practical standards and conformity assessment processes. This becomes increasingly apparent as governments tend to replace restrictive technical laws with goal-oriented legislation. A new concept of safety may need to be developed that places humans at the centre of the human-machine relationship.

As noted by van Gulijk, “While steering the world toward global safety excellence is a massive and complex challenge, the IEC with its long-established history of coordinating experts on safety, engineering, systems integration and ICT, is particularly well-placed to bring stakeholders together and to achieve consensus where it matters most: protecting peoples’ lives”.

The white paper can be downloaded from the IEC website free-of-charge.