News | November 17, 2006

ASSE Safety Symposium: Technology Bites Back

Scottsdale, AZ — Some innovative safety solutions and technology over the years have resulted in increased safety, yet have also led to different types of safety problems presenters at the November 16-17 American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) "Solutions in Safety Through Technology" symposium said.

ASSE member and symposium task force chair Diana L. Ash, CSP, M.Ed., of North Carolina, noted to attendees, "As safety professionals, we can find ourselves reacting to consequences of technology or we can proactively incorporate safety into the application of technology. When we planned this symposium we discussed the impact of technology as it relates to human performance. We asked, 'has technology made the workplace safer? and are we matching new technology and the people who use it.'"

Dr. Edward H. Tenner, senior research associate, Lemelson Center for the History of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History in Plainsboro, New Jersey, said in the opening keynote presentation, "miners did not start wearing helmets as safety gear until 1912, the time of World War I when soldiers began wearing helmets – this is an example of the unintended good consequences of war. At that time miners and the mine owners were great risk takers, for instance they did not have safety lamps until after the mining explosion of 1812 when 90 miners died. In 1813 they had the safety lamp, yet they began to go into even deeper and more dangerous areas, taking even more risks.

"In 1881 a new celebrated product was patented, the Clinton safety pin," Dr. Tenner noted. "People used them and left them around the house. It wasn't until a doctor publized the dangers of the safety pin to children in a series of photos showing safety pins in the throats of children he had operated on. This product, although innovative, had proven to be a threat to children. Soon after safety warnings were developed and the general public became more aware of the product's danger to children."

"Technology plays an indispensable role in modern society by providing a myriad of benefits ranging from dramatic increases in human performance and work productivity to enhances quality of life," Dr. Michael J. Kalsher, associate professor of psychology at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, said during his session. "However, incorporating technology into products and environments can have unintended consequences, particularly when people's physical and cognitive limitations are not a key design consideration."

During Dr. Kalsher's session titled "Human Physical and Cognitive Limitations Related to Technology: A Double-Edged Sword" he provided many examples. One was the selling of a portable gas tank and noted the dangers of the gas tank in the home. "Recently a young boy went to the garage and took the portable gas container he had seen his parents use to put gas in their car. He did this to put gas in his toy car," Dr. Kalsher said. "The boy poured the gas in the toy car and soon a fire broke out. Now, you may ask, why don't they have child resistant safety features and warnings on the gas container so accidents like this can be prevented?

"Because, they sell them empty," Dr. Kalsher said. "It doesn't make sense."

Dr. Kalsher, an expert in Human Factors, noted the key design companies should be using to increase safety are the Human Factors Design Principles which include: provide a good conceptual model or mental model of the product; make things clearly visible; use natural mapping; provide feedback; simplify; strike a balance between the knowledge world vs. the knowledge in the head; make it easy to evaluate the current state of the system; exploit the power of constraint; design to allow for easy recovery; and standardize if need be. "When developing products for the general public you need to design to reach the lowest common denominator," he said.

"The problem today is that technology is a good thing, yet everything is getting more complicated and many products are moving away from the intended users to the general public, such as medical devices in the home," Dr. Kalsher added. "Devices intended to be used by doctors and nurses are going into the home. People need to take the time to learn how to use them correctly or their safety will be compromised. Basically, as you have heard before, it's the conservation of catastrophe."

Symposium participants are learning how to recognize the influence of technological innovations on safe human performance as well as discussing new tools to build safety into the processes within an individual organization.

Participants also hearing about promising, emerging technologies for slip, trip and fall prevention and current controversies in the technologies related to pedestrian safety. The "Selecting Safety Technology for Construction" session, presented by the President and CEO of DBO2, Inc. in Redwood, California, Barry Nelson, will provide valuable lessons and effective practices from over 100 companies who have implemented safety technology for construction to thousands of field workers the past four years.

In his Friday morning general session presentation, "Risk of Nanotechnology: How Do We Prepare for the Potential Adverse Biological Impact?" Chief Science Advisor for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in Washington, DC, Andrew D. Maynard, Ph.D, will discuss what is known about the risks of nanostructured material, and steps needed to take to ensure the safety of the workforce.

For more information and a copy of the The "Solutions in Safety Through Technology" symposium proceedings disc please go to or contact ASSE customer service at 847-699-2929 or