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Coronavirus highlights digital’s role in driving tomorrow’s safety outcomes

Safety must be viewed as a state of being and a living, breathing thing that needs cultivation, argues the chief executive of the class society ABS

While no one has the playbook for the coronavirus outbreak, industries are learning and adapting to this new reality on the fly, where new methods of working virtually and remotely are being devised and implemented in real-time

WE are witnessing history in the making today in the form of the first digitally driven global safety outcomes. The uses of technology in response to the coronavirus contain powerful lessons on digital’s potential to drive safety improvement across all levels of an industrial operation, acting as an acid test on a comparatively micro-scale of a vessel to the macro-scale of a global shipping operation.

This emergent potential is one dividend of a digital revolution unfolding around us where the accelerated pace of change can be both unsettling and exhilarating — unsettling because technology is evolving so rapidly that new developments are often superseded before they can be fully absorbed. On the other hand, it is exhilarating because the rapid evolution constantly leads us to new possibilities for advancement and new solutions to our most vexing problems, often achieving what we once considered impossible.

The maritime industry continues its own digitally-driven movement into condition-based approaches and real-time, risk-based, data driven decision making, developing technologies that enable many of us to do our jobs without being physically present at the work site. In parallel, our regulatory landscape continues to transform under complex, performance-based, data-centric regimes. Shipping operations rely increasingly on integrated networks, software and data transfer solutions to operate with greater efficiency. Also, digitally powered interconnections between onboard equipment and shore-based systems are redefining the traditional ship-to-shore interface. 

While rapid change is our new normal, we must remember that when faced with unforeseen and unanticipated circumstances, we must not abandon proven solutions. Rather, we should rework our approaches and methods to fit our new reality. We should build from them a self-renewing approach to the future. We should further harness the power of digital technologies to drive safety outcomes while staying alert to the unintended safety consequences that may be introduced as we adopt new ways of working. Strategic thinking centered around technical feasibility, economic viability and sustainability are required now more than ever. 

Witness the way digital technologies are helping the world deal rapidly with disasters and threats to public well-being, such as coronavirus. A cornerstone of the response involves companies all over the world designing and implementing new ways of working. This may have a knock-on effect of disrupting some of our most traditional concepts regarding our approach to work. For example, the sudden rise in virtual participation may have some already calculating operating cost savings and may permanently alter our concept of a business meeting. 

While currently dominating public conversation, coronavirus concerns are not obscuring some of the important issues that the shipping industry continues to address, such as market uncertainty and unpredictability, the impact of new regulations and ever-changing technologies.

Quite frankly, what we are learning from leading through the coronavirus situation is the importance and value of risk-versus-risk decision making and leveraging digital technologies to change the dimensions of what we do and how we do it as a means to extend the safety protection frontier.

While the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on public health is not currently on the magnitude of prior pandemics in history, the role of digital technology should be considered in the containment and control data that will shape how coronavirus is defined. Perhaps earlier epidemics and pandemics would have been less severe had information flow, community preparedness and global reaction been more like those today. The global response to the current threat may be the first example of the digital era’s ability to improve public health by using technology to restrict the spread of an epidemic, potentially saving countless lives — a scenario in which devastation may be measured in billions of dollars rather than millions of lives. 

Today’s rapid digital change has been accompanied by an accelerated accumulation of knowledge and insight, which together are reshaping traditional approaches to productivity, decision making and, most importantly, safety. We now know so much more and have the technological capabilities such that it is time to stop thinking of safety as a goal or destination. 

Safety must be viewed as a state of being and a living, breathing thing that needs cultivation. An organisation’s safety regime can no longer be seen as a fortress built on procedures and systems that, once established, provides a permanent shield against disaster. In this world of rapid change, safety is more like a barrier beach, a protective layer against an ocean of risk that needs maintenance and periodic renewal. 

How are you managing your safety protection frontier?

Christopher J. Wiernicki is the chairman, president and chief executive of classification society ABS

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