The Business of Innovation: Advancing Safety Products

Words:

Words: Oliver Auston, chief innovation officer at Pure Safety Group (PSG)
Photo: PSG

Every safety product must meet minimum standards, set by OSHA, and may meet optional standards set by ANSI. Standards should be the starting line, not the final goal, when building safety products for today’s workers. Since the purpose of safety products is to save lives, it always makes sense that innovation teams at product design and manufacturing companies continue to push the boundaries of what a product can do more of and/or better. 

More lives saved is the incentive that fuels the drive of product innovators in fall protection. Is there a component that can be made from a different material to make the product stronger, i.e. able to hold more weight in more extreme environments or scenarios? Is there a reconfiguration that will make the product more comfortable for the user, so that it is more likely to be used and appreciated? 

When design teams push the envelope to bring products to the next level, standards are updated, fewer injuries occur and, ultimately, more workers return home safely from their jobs.

Body harnesses worn by workers at height are good examples of products that have been continuously iterated since they were first worn in the 1930s. In those early days, the safety method for restraining or catching a worker in the event of a fall was not much more than a belt around the waist. 

Luckily for all, harnesses have come a long way and the latest harnesses introduced into the market have raised the bar for this product category to its highest level yet. Product introductions like this, that bring new ideas to life on the job, come from innovators who work hard to not only stay current, but ahead of opportunities to make the best products possible. 

Evolution Basics

Our product innovation team starts with the basics, which include getting connected to as many industry information sources as possible. Within these sources, we look at things such as standard working groups, trade associations, industry thought leadership events, and voice of customer (VOC) research. The information we collect helps us stay current on safety standards, issues and customer needs. 

We also maintain close relationships with several end users who help map out wish lists of product and functional improvements they’d like to have while on the job. Workers who wear and use safety equipment are the best advisors, given they have likely used and compared multiple products from various companies, and can identify even the smallest opportunities to close a safety or comfort gap.

Looking Outside the Box

Our inspiration for great transformation comes from being able to look ‘outside of the box,’ paying attention to divergent thinking rather than convergent thinking. We look at innovation that springs up in other industries, such as automotive, fashion and athletic apparel, and we follow leading companies and individuals working in product development, product inspiration and customer satisfaction. Cues from communities outside the safety industry inform how we can further improve safety products, always asking ourselves the question of whether or not a product can be advanced any more than it already is. 

Essentially, we question: How can we transport some of the greatest thinking and new inventions happening in these other industries to enhance safety in industries, such as construction, and offer safety managers and their teams something truly groundbreaking and new? Most importantly, how we can offer a product of significant functional and technical advantage? One that is inspired by deep research and new applications that come from human factor studies or new technologically advanced materials? 

Using new material choices in new ways is a major opportunity to enhance products at a scientific level and visually. Material considerations are key inspiration for product improvement. Innovations in material used also continue to enhance the comfort of safety products that are worn by the worker. Safety is increased for an individual when he/she is as comfortable as possible while wearing the product, and are able to perform work functions as easily as possible without barriers caused by the product. Compliance increases when individuals look forward to putting on and keeping on a product that is comfortable and made for the job they are doing. If a product hasn’t been designed for comfort, a worker will naturally resist donning it and using it correctly, which inhibits its efficacy and puts the person in danger.  

The Golden Circle

We believe that there is always room for small advancements and major breakthroughs within the current standards in the industry, even when standards lag behind due to timing of their role outs and compliance onboarding of both product manufacturers and product users. As with any industry that develops and matures, the safety industry experiences a rate of innovation that can and will be slow in between every new, groundbreaking discovery that is made. 

Safety innovation and product design are spurred by the competitive spirit of design teams, who compare their ideas to product development industry to industry. We look back at the great innovations of others to influence our own products. One manufacturer observes another and, when one launches a new product, the other follows suit. It is a constant game of competition, but one that is positive and beneficial because it only results in new and improved safety products and standards. 

One of the tools we use is an innovation thinking process developed by Simon Sinek called The Golden Circle. We use it to ask ourselves the important and foundational questions in the proper order, or the Golden Circle Way. The essential questions of the Golden Circle are why, how and what? ‘Why’ pertains to the very purpose, cause and/or belief as to why our organization exists. It is not about money, but rather whether or not we know exactly why we do what they do. ‘How’ is the question of what makes our company special and what sets it apart from the competition? Only some organizations know how they do what they do. And finally, ‘what’ challenges us to pin-point what we do -- the products we provide to others. 

The discussion seems very general but, by getting down to the basics, a team of creative designers and developers starts thinking differently about innovation, while still tying it to the purpose and values of the company and the customer. This process has resulted in ideas that arise easier because the discussion is efficient and has proven successful within companies in many industries.  

An Innovation Example

There are dozens of components that make up a safety harness. They’ve been invented and added to the harness over the course of close to 100 years. 

During product testing, we identify the minimum compliance level of safety that a product must reach in order for it to be sold and used in the market. Yet compliance should not set the bar in terms of safety. Companies like ours seek to exceed compliance levels while ensuring redundancy and fail safes are built in. We are constantly looking for foreseeable misuse scenarios during performance and strength testing of safety products. 

Once these base goals are reached, the innovation team starts finetuning the product for maximum comfort while still maintaining its performance. For example, our new Xplorer harness stands out from our previous harnesses because of its modernized comfort design. Its curved webbing follows the natural contour of the worker’s body, making the harness feel like it is customized for every individual user. Its unique shape brings a totally new look and feel to the safety harness product category. If history bears repeating, the design will be replicated in other harnesses, creating a ‘next level’ of expectation for the user.

Another new aspect the Xplorer brings to the harness category is a very simple change – and idea that came from Golden Circle thinking. The stitching on the harness is colored, which makes it a visual indicator of correct fit. If a worker putting on the harness can see red stitching, there is a problem, such as a buckle that’s unfastened or a strap that is twisted. Seeing the red stitching enhances the safety of the user, with a solid visual that not only gives a physical indication of proper use, but provides the user with a sense of essential reassurance of their safety. It is imperative that a worker not only is safe in a harness, but that they feel safe as well. The new Xplorer harness provides a sort of psychological assurance for every wearer. Simply making stitching a different color, that shows when the harness is not correctly positioned or completely fitted, may seem like a small adjustment to what’s been done in the past, but it adds a new level of value to the safety scenario that did not exist before.

The Xplorer harness is also an example of a product that was in existence in the recreational market, and then was taken by the innovation team and repurposed for industrial use. Attributes such as comfort and minimum weight were important to individuals wearing the harness for leisure activities, such as rock climbing and ziplining. Workers on the job, with their own version of these activities, especially if they work at height, would likely appreciate these same benefits. Core elements of the product that provided for balance and freedom of movement were also important to both sporting and work applications, so they were carried over. These product characteristics do not compromise the harness’ performance or strength. The Xplorer is now the strongest and most lightweight harness we’ve ever created. 

Over the years, worksites, workforces, and need for maximizing safety are constantly evolving. Long gone are the days of makeshift safety mechanisms. Today’s safety mangers and teams can go to work with confidence, knowing there are groups of product designers, engineers, developers and manufacturers that are thinking about their every move. Saving lives is a powerful motivator for these innovators to spend their careers discovering new ways of bringing safety to the next level. 

Oliver Auston is Chief Innovation Officer of Pure Safety Group (PSG) and an executive leader of PSG Europe. For close to 20 years, Auston has developed fall protection and lifting products for Checkmate and PSG, which has an innovation portfolio of more than 160 patents for more than 5,000 products. Learn more about PSG brands here.

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