Microsoft Workplace Safety Software Elicits Praise, Concerns

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By Bruce Rolfsen

Microsoft Corp. is using artificial intelligence software to identify workers and dangers that could play an important role in future occupational safety programs and—perhaps—become mandatory, safety and legal experts told Bloomberg BNA.

However, that same information could be used by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate or cite employers, raising new legal issues, attorneys added.

At a recent forum for software developers, Microsoft debuted its growing capabilities in artificial intelligence (AI) programs, which use some of the same concepts that enable a smartphone camera to focus on different faces or a laptop to identify people in photographs.

“It’s early days, but we are really excited for the potential of AI (artificial intelligence) for workplace safety,” Andrea Carl, Microsoft’s director of commercial communications, said during the presentation at Build 2017 in Seattle last month.

Microsoft demonstrated a system that was able to detect when a construction worker mishandled a power tool, identify which workers were removing tools from a storage area, and who had entered a hallway without authorization. The technology also can live monitor storage areas to detect chemical spills or goods falling off shelves.

If the artificial intelligence decides there is a hazard, it alerts a supervisor about the problem through the manager’s smartphone.

“I can use this technology to ensure my project is meeting health and safety regulations,” Carl said.

The information in the Microsoft system is intended to be easily updated by workers, Carl said. On a worker’s first day, the new arrival could be entered into the system by simply taking the employee’s picture with a smartphone and uploading the picture and other identifications to the cloud-based system. However, Microsoft did not give a date for when the technology would be available to companies.

Microsoft declined Bloomberg BNA’s requests for a followup interview after the presentation.

‘Interesting Possibilities’

“It has a lot interesting possibilities,” Jeff Lancaster, president of Lancaster Safety Consulting Inc. in Wexford, Pa., told Bloomberg BNA. “I’m in favor of any products that helps keep workers safe.”

Lancaster and others said using an artificial intelligence-enabled monitoring system could conceivably become mandated by OSHA through enforcement of the agency’s general duty clause. That provision requires employers to provide a workplace free of known safety hazards that can be mitigated.

Employers who decide to monitor their worksites with AI-enabled surveillance systems shouldn’t face major hurdles with privacy issues, Garry Mathiason, an attorney who chairs Littler Mendelson PC’s artificial intelligence and robotics practice in San Francisco.

In general, the same privacy requirements for existing surveillance systems that record but don’t analyze images, would apply to AI systems, Mathiason told Bloomberg BNA. The requirements vary among states.

Employees and others coming onto worksites will have to be notified of the systems, but that can done in some cases by simply posting a sign, Mathiason said. There may also have to be provisions made for areas where privacy is expected.

Recording audio in addition to pictures would pose greater privacy issues, the attorney said.

New Legal Issues

When a recording can show actions leading to an injury, the system is an obvious benefit, Steven McCown, co-chair of Littler’s workplace safety and health practice group, said.

However, the AI-enabled system raises questions about how OSHA might try to use the video recordings, McCown told Bloomberg BNA from Austin, Texas.

The agency would certainly request and get recordings of incidents under investigation, McCown said. And OSHA also may ask to see recordings for other times and review the recordings to find incidents the agency wasn’t aware of, McCown said.

That could result in citations for alleged violations inspectors didn’t witness in-person or lead the agency to revisit a site to determine if a recorded hazard still existed.

Whether a citation for an action only captured on video would stand up to a legal challenge is an issue judges will be asked to decide, McCown said.

McCown recommended companies retain the recordings for at least six months, the current statute of limitations for OSHA to cite violations. That would prevent an employer from being accused of destroying evidence sought by OSHA and enable the employer to use the video to defend itself.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at brolfsen@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

For More Information

Mircosoft's promotional video is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pL-c00M2CnI.

A video of Andrea Carl's presentation is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1pDOkzsFOU.

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