Managing Perceptions of Risk in the Technology Industry

In the December 2019 Synergist, we published the first part of an article about risk in the technology industry, based on interviews with three industry leaders. This month, we present the conclusion of our interview. To preserve their anonymity, the industry leaders are identified only by their initials. Their responses have been edited.

AF: We rely heavily on technology. We still collect some data by hand, but then we use software to identify and analyze risk and to stay organized. We also rely heavily on drones to see places we can’t easily get to. That’s been tremendously useful.  When it comes to reducing risks, a good example of our use of technology is the implementation of virtual and augmented reality. Virtual reality is fully immersive, and we can use it to train staff in a lifelike scenario without having any real exposures. This approach has really helped staff retain their training when compared to more traditional online courses. Augmented reality allows an expert thousands of miles away to literally see what the operator is doing. Or the operator can use this technology to view their unit and overlay it with an image of what the unit is supposed to look like. It is a huge asset for improving communication and quickly addressing environmental health and safety issues. ML: Ten years ago, I didn’t really use tools for addressing risk. Now, there is so much technology that can be used to better understand risk. We have enhanced real-time monitoring—more robust EHS platforms that can be used to better understand institutional risk across the company. Data can be available, synthesized, and stored at a much quicker pace than in the past. These resources are not limited to just the technology sectors, but those of us in tech are used to having strong, robust data at our fingertips to drive our decision-making processes. It is important these days to have EHS data available quickly. It has become the expectation that we have robust data and tools to really understand where risks are and the best options to mitigate those risks.  One of our challenges is that we often have data overload or are paralyzed by too much data. On the one hand, you want that wealth of data to drive decisions. But in some situations, you lose a sense of the story the data is telling you because there are multiple ways you can interpret it. I’ve learned that you need to tell a very succinct story of where the risks are and what support is needed from other stakeholders to mitigate those risks. You need to prepare your elevator speech on what the issues are, what you recommend to address those issues, and what you need from senior leadership. You’ve got to have a compelling story that your data supports. If you don’t, you can be in a worse situation than before you asked for support.  BC: We are constantly turning to technology to help manage risk, but it’s still a little difficult in the IH area. For example, we’re involved in a chemical management initiative. We looked for newer technologies that would enable us to assess levels of certain pollutants in the work environment. Somewhat surprisingly, we are not finding a lot that will help meet the needs of this initiative. For instance, there are a lot of monitoring devices for particulates, but these aren’t proving relevant for some of the volatile materials being used. The ability to conduct remote monitoring needs development as well. For physical hazards, we’ve had more luck with technology and fire safety. We are using cameras that have machine learning built into them. We have cameras with the capability to detect whether an egress path or exit door is obstructed. If it is, an alert is immediately sent out to clear the exit route. It was a simple problem for us, but it kept coming up, and now we’re using technology to eliminate the issue. 
In some situations, you lose a sense of the story the data is telling you because there are multiple ways you can interpret it.
NEVA JACOBS, MSPH, CIH, is a supervising health scientist with Cardno ChemRisk, and is based out of Arlington, Va. She is a member of the AIHA Risk Committee.   RACHEL ZISOOK, MS, CIH, is a supervising health scientist with Cardno ChemRisk, a scientific consulting firm, and is based out of San Francisco, Calif. She is a member of the AIHA Risk Committee. Editor’s note: This article is part of a series that focuses on risk in various industries. Earlier installments addressed manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and technology.
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HOW DO YOU MANAGE THE PERCEPTIONS OF YOUR INDUSTRY FROM WORKERS, CONSUMERS, AND THE GENERAL PUBLIC? AF: Public perception is huge these days. It is really important for us to consider the perception of the communities surrounding our facilities. We host a lot of town hall meetings with the community to let them know what we’re doing and also to give them a venue for raising concerns and asking questions. We are a factory—we’re making stuff, and any smell in the area is going to be blamed on us whether we are the actual source or not. Transparency is so important, but it can be incredibly hard to get people to believe you are actually being transparent. We even have EHS staff dedicated to community relations. Being a spokesperson doesn’t come naturally to most of us, but once our EHS staff are trained in risk communication, that’s a huge benefit over a PR spokesperson who doesn’t have a scientific background. We may also bring in a third party to perform a risk assessment, which can lend a lot of credibility to the results.  We pay attention to consumer perceptions because our image is very important to selling our product. We are very sensitive to how the consumer sees us. You can’t hide things, because everything comes out eventually, and it will ultimately impact who we can do business with as well as who will buy our product.  When it comes to workers’ perceptions, the most important thing I’ve learned is that personal interactions are key, both for you to understand their problems and for them to see that you are actually listening and trying to help. Taking a little extra time to meet face-to-face can save a whole lot of trouble and misunderstanding.  ML: You need to be cognizant of employee, organization, and media perceptions. I try to tailor risk communication to the specific audience. After a risk assessment, I may communicate my findings to employees, repackage those results for the media, and then package them in a different way for senior leadership. Now more than ever, I’m putting myself in the shoes of stakeholders who are interpreting risk in their environment. When I explain a safety risk, I think about how I can inspire a positive reaction rather than have that same information lead to a negative one. I focus on how the risk will be understood, interpreted, and ultimately acted on by that employee or organization. For risk communication, I am more proactive than reactive. You want to share both inside and outside the organization as often as you can to show that you’re doing something. Then if something negative occurs, it’s clear that it was a one-off rather than a springboard for further media scrutiny.  In the tech sector, we need to be cognizant of not just mitigating risk but communicating both the negatives and the positives to the media. There is so much scrutiny and attention on the tech industry—it’s really under a microscope. As a risk manager, I need to make sure I’ve done everything I can to mitigate risk, build that mentality into our company culture, and then help my organization tell a compelling story to the board of directors or media about what we’re doing. BC: The question of how you develop trust within your workforce is a really interesting one. There’s a fine line between communicating regularly to your workers and overdoing it. There’s nothing wrong with too much information, but today, the average worker is bombarded with all kinds of messaging from human resources, managers and supervisors, support functions, family members, and advertisers. How to develop impactful, concise messaging is something we are constantly looking at. Communication is different today than it was five to 10 years ago, and it will continue to change. One of the issues in the factory setting is dealing with turnover in the workforce. For example, we may have just delivered certain messages to the workforce, and then we’ll need to deal with attrition and how to be effective with a set of new employees. New employees may be less motivated regarding safety and well-being than long-tenured employees. We operate a business-to-business company, so we don’t target our messaging directly to consumers; our customers are mostly other businesses. We certainly face issues of how our industry as a whole is perceived, and some scrutiny falls on the manufacturing end of our business. We focus on understanding our risk and managing it so that, if we are put to the test, we’ll be able to demonstrate that we’re handling things responsibly. 
Part 2 of an Interview with Industry Leaders