From Cyber Attacks to Physical Hazards – Safety Challenges in 4IR

12 May

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The technologies that are emerging as a result of Fourth Industrial Revolution hold the potential to change the world, but industrial enterprises must understand the possible safety and security risks before it is put in place.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that globally, around 340 million occupational accidents occur every year, whilst over 160 million people are diagnosed with work-related illnesses annually. Although the construction industry represents a disproportionally high rate of accidents, the manufacturing and industrialisation sector is not far behind, and that is often before brand-new technology is introduced to the production process.


The digitisation of the manufacturing sector is likely to lead to the emergence of new safety risks in manufacturing as a result of new work equipment and tools (including new machine behaviour such as self-learning autonomy); new ways in which work is organised and managed (including new behaviours of people) and new workforce characteristics (including new skills, knowledge and information requirements). For instance, factories have long seen increases in automation, reduction in manning requirements and increases in production quality and repeatability – indeed, the concept of computer numerical control (CNC) machines dates back to the 1940s.


However, factory machines are now becoming more sophisticated, meaning the proximity between man and machine is closing. However, altering the interactions between workers and digital technologies bring new sources of physical risks and hazards, such as long-term health risks from exposure to new hazardous substances and psychosocial risks from new sources of work-related stress. As a result, existing safety assurance practice and regulatory frameworks are no longer fit-for-purpose and must be updated to keep pace with new digital developments.

On the security side, the rise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has introduced a host of data and privacy risks. More devices linked to a network outside of an internal server means more potential security breaches, and a raft of new digital security risks including; data loss, intellectual property theft, business interruptions, fraud, reputational damage, cyber extortion, physical asset damage and more. For example, cyber-attacks are a growing concern for the manufacturing sector and with good reason. A study by Make UK and American International Group found that 48% of UK manufacturers have experienced a cyber-attack, with a quarter of the attacks resulting in a financial impact. In addition, whilst remote working was an emerging trend before the pandemic, it has been turbo-charged by the COVID-19 pandemic - redefining work practices by normalising home and remote working which creates network vulnerabilities.

So how should manufacturing organisations tackle the rapidly evolving issue of safety and security within the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)?

According to the ‘OK Computer -  The Safety and Security Dimensions of Industry 4.0’ report by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and Cambridge University, supported by the Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit (GMIS), the global manufacturing sector should focus on bridging the knowledge gap between technology, safety and security to ensure that digitisation reaches its potential, without endangering workers or company data. To do this, report calls for stakeholders across different sectors to work together to:

1.        Build a unified global knowledge database on 4IR safety and security (through publicly accessible online platforms).

2.       Develop a unified vision of future safety and security risks and requirements (e.g. through foresight and scenario-planning).

3.       Create interest groups (for the mapping, sharing and adoption of best practices).

4.       Create industrial safety and security guidelines to inform the development of standards (through collaboration with standards bodies).

5.       Develop a 4IR-ready workforce (integrating safety and security skill requirements).

In some organisations, these initiatives are already underway. For example, General Electric, the American multinational conglomerate, has assembled  guidelines for safety when developing critical infrastructure products through its ‘Analysis of Semantic Specifications and Efficient generation of Requirements based GE Tests tool’ whilst in other examples, new technology is not the cause of concern, but the solution.  For example, Location Awareness uses wireless technology to identify where people are working in order to better protect employees at refineries, chemical plants, and oil and gas platforms. The company expects that this technology could help reduce personnel incidents by more than 70%.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing how we live and work, and manufacturing is set to be one of the most affected sectors. An integrated approach to addressing new safety and security risks is critical for the successful deployment of new technologies in the post-pandemic world, as only once safeguards are in place will we begin to see the real potential of what can be achieved with Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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