Opinion

Vulnerable data

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Nothing new under the sun. Isn’t that what people say? Doesn’t the world turn to the ‘twas ever-thus’ beat of winners and losers, where the rich thrive and the vulnerable suffer, an eternal circle untouched by new ways of living and working that come and go with each passing fashion?


Yet, what if these developments offered something new, a power in the hands of the most vulnerable to be able to transform and improve their own lives? It’s easy to be utopian about such possibilities, but there are signs for optimism.

We at the British Safety Council have always had an interest in vulnerable workers. Before 1974’s Health and Safety at Work Act and universal laws, so many workers were vulnerable to risks at work that were barely managed – as shown by the appalling fatality and injury rates of the times.

With the Act, things improved, but to this day many workers in the UK – whether for reasons of type of job, age, gender, ethnicity – are more at risk of injury, ill health and worse, even though they are equal under laws guarding the safety, health and wellbeing of all workers.

To take an example, we know that being male in the construction sector is a risk factor for their mental health.

Clearly, an enforcement regime, alongside an enormous effort to train and educate people, can reduce the number of workers vulnerable to all kinds of risks. But there are blind spots, and at a time of cuts to enforcing authorities, including to the work of local authorities, and the uncertainty around a post-Brexit regulatory regime, it seems unlikely that new laws or new state-led activities will be forthcoming.

However, what is coming on in leaps and bounds is citizen science, where amateurs are directly involved in the collection of information for scientific purposes. We are now seeing how smartphone technology has vastly expanded opportunities to collect data from a huge number of participants and the ability to centralise this data for purposes of calculation and, crucially, insights.

This potential to gain insights that are simultaneously relevant to an individual contributor (the user) and the wider community (creating knowledge of use to employers, researchers or government) could be – with the right support – an enormous opportunity to tackle vulnerabilities. Examples of this kind of work include for monitoring and predicting cancer where smartphone users were asked to score biomarkers and this data was pooled by researchers.

It’s a cutting-edge field and that is why I’m delighted the British Safety Council has now entered a partnership with experts at King’s College, London to build Canairy, an app that enables employers and outdoor workers to collaborate in reducing exposure to dangerous levels of air pollution.

We know that outdoor workers can be vulnerable to the health risks associated with air pollution but given the all-pervasive nature of the risk it is very hard to do anything very practical about it. With information produced by the app, we hope employers will be able to develop better health risk assessments and discuss with their outdoor workers what reasonable actions can be taken to reduce exposure.

I spoke about citizen science and you may question the term in relation to Canairy. On the science, data produced by the app will be collected and, over time, produce information that could be cross-linked with health data (for example by a longitudinal study of a cohort of outdoor workers). And yes, we have made Canairy a professional app, restricting access to the information to employers.

We have known for a long time that involving workers in any activity to protect their health is crucial for success and with the world of work changing fast, it opens new employer-employee relationships. If we’re all pulling in the same direction, why not worker science? 

We are very excited about the development but we need your support. We will be presenting the work at our annual conference on 14 November. I hope to see you there and we will keep you all informed over the coming months on our activities to promote the campaign to protect vulnerable outdoor workers.

 

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