UK HSE to launch regulatory sandbox for industrial safety tech

The sandbox will see the regulator work with industry and tech startups to accelerate the development and adoption of a range of safety-related technologies, with a particular emphasis on data and analytics

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is inviting technology companies to participate in an Industrial Safetytech Regulatory Sandbox as part of its Discovering Safety initiative, which was set up to explore how better tech and regulation can improve safety and risk management in industrial workplaces.

Delivered in partnership with the Safetytech Accelerator, a non-profit established by Lloyd’s Register and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation to promote wider adoption of safety-related technologies, Discovering Safety specifically looks to find new ways of using data and analytics to prevent workplace accidents.

The sandbox being launched will focus initially on innovation around significant areas of risk in construction – including falls from height, vehicle collisions, crane operations and manual handling – and is set to begin in April 2023.  

Regulatory sandboxes, such as those being developed by the UK’s information commissioner, are test environments that allow software to be trialled in real-life situations under the close supervision of regulators or other oversight bodies.

HSE has said the sandbox will also explore ways to assess risk and ensure more effective regulatory compliance; help accelerate the adoption of proven safety tech products; and work to understand and reduce barriers that might delay the deployment of new safety technologies.

It will also adopt a collaborative “tripartite approach” between industry, the tech sector and HSE as a regulator to identify common safety problems and devise solutions.

The project is being financed by a £555,000 grant from the Regulators’ Pioneer Fund, which was set up in July 2022 to help UK regulators experiment with new approaches. “We are committed to supporting health and safety innovation, and also to exploring ways that we can be innovative in how we approach regulation,” said Helen Balmforth, head of data analytics at HSE and lead for the Discovering Safety project. “We are looking to the safetytech community to help identify the best opportunities for progress and how we can collectively overcome the barriers that limit progress.”

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The sandbox will recruit six technology companies with “high-potential” safetytech products by the end of February 2023. Each of these firms will receive up to £15,000 in funding to support their involvement in the sandbox, which is open to UK-based companies with “market-ready or pilot-ready” technologies.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Balmforth said the Discovering Safety initiative came about because HSE “knew we could do more” with the valuable health and safety information at its disposal, especially given the new analytical tools and techniques that are now available to help extract insights from this data.

She added that working with the Safetytech Accelerator on the programme has also “opened up our ability” to work directly with startups, adding that it has helped HSE to adopt new ways of “working at pace” and push the boundaries of how it seeks to apply new technologies.

Steven Naylor, a senior scientist in HSE’s science division, added that while the regulator already has its own in-house data science and analytics capabilities, it recognises that the UK’s startup ecosystem offers a greater variety of capabilities that can complement HSE’s.

“We also recognise that, particularly construction projects, generate huge amounts of data,” he said. “We’re really interested in technologies that allow effective use of AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning, predictive analytics to take data and predict outcomes, technologies around dynamic risk assessment … [and] technologies that can potentially nudge workers into safer behaviours.”

Naylor added that while most health and safety information is currently captured in “narrative form” through free-text reports, technologies such as wearables, sensors and other industrial internet of things (IoT) devices can help to generate and make use of data in real time.

“A big part of the challenge is breaking down those data silos,” he said. “The typical data sets that health and safety functions are working with are accident reports and near-miss reports. A lot of that information is very reactive in nature – something needs to happen or be reported for us to be collecting information on it – but we are increasingly trying to be more proactive.”

Barriers to safety tech adoption

Balmforth, however, pointed to several remaining barriers to safety tech adoption, including financial ones for smaller companies that may not have the resources to purchase new technologies; a lack of understanding about what some technologies can do and how they can be effectively implemented in a business; and “considerations around the workforce, and the ethics of potentially monitoring people and collecting information as they’re working”.

She added that one of the first projects Discovering Safety undertook after it launched in June 2019 dealt with the auto-anonymisation of health and safety-related data: “It’s one of the first things we did, because we needed a way of automating that redaction and anonymisation to be able to open up our records.”

Naylor said “creating that capability just means we can build the data resource that provides the foundations of our innovation work”, and that HSE is also interested in exploring new ways of sharing data, such as the idea of data trusts being developed by the Open Data Institute.

Other projects already undertaken by HSE through the Discovering Safety initiative include using computer vision to conduct more thorough safety inspections, and automating risk assessment and quality assurance processes.

“If this [sandbox] is successful, we’re hoping we might be able to run additional sandboxes,” said Balmforth. “We’re hoping to test the way we can have this tripartite approach … we want to try to foster that discussion and carry on that relationship if we can.”

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