How Wearable Devices Can Improve Workplace Safety
Wearable devices are now quite common as a means of monitoring the physical well-being of users. Whether it’s a tool to measure exercise performance or to passively monitor health parameters, wearable devices have empowered more people to pay attention to their bodies even without the intervention of medical professionals.
Some companies are now aiming to extend this concept and incorporate the use of wearable devices for better workplace safety. How exactly can a wearable device benefit a worker? What products are being developed for this specific market niche? Will the use of wearable devices also have negative effects on workplace practices?
Workplace safety and common workplace injuries
Workplace safety is considered one of the most important principles that guide workplace practices and rules. This is true regardless of industry – workplace safety is as important in an office setting as it is in a manufacturing facility.
Workplace safety can be viewed as a means of protecting the welfare of the workers. From a more pragmatic view, businesses and corporations also benefit from workplace safety because injuries can directly affect the productivity of the workforce. Accidents and injuries also translate to higher administrative costs and medical expenses. Any business that prioritizes workplace safety gains a good reputation, both from investors and the spending public.
Hazards can vary across different workplaces. In industrial facilities, tool accidents, electrical shocks, and chemical spills are much more common. In offices, injuries related to repetitive movements or staying in one position for too long are more concerning. A proper workplace safety program should involve doing a detailed workplace hazard assessment.
How wearable devices can help
One flaw of many workplace safety systems is that it relies heavily on workers doing self-monitoring and self-diagnosis. This can be dangerous because people may not always be conscious that they are doing tasks in ways that are considered dangerous. For instance, they may not easily recognize the signs of fatigue or that their posture is no longer ergonomic.
As industries start adopting the mindset that data is extremely valuable, various startup companies have started to propose the idea of using wearable devices or ‘wearables’ to enhance workplace safety.
These wearable devices can range from simple motion trackers worn on wrists to hard hats that have been made “smart” with an array of sensors. The best thing about wearable devices is that they can do the job of hazard monitoring passively. This means that the burden of complying with workplace safety practices no longer completely falls on the shoulders of the workers, allowing them to be more productive.
Another benefit of wearable devices for workplace safety is that it allows for large-scale and real-time data gathering. Through big data, businesses can make more data-driven decisions when it comes to safety practices. For instance, a business observing poor lifting posture or ergonomics in their workers may decide to initiate training to avoid lifting-related injuries. Environments where workers continue to work despite signs of fatigue may implement more frequent break periods.
Wearable devices for workplace safety can be classified into three broad categories based on their functions.
Monitoring devices are likely the simplest and least invasive. These devices passively monitor a metric such as the user’s pulse rate, respiration rate, movement, or location. There are also wearables that can detect if a user has fallen suddenly. Monitoring devices likely yield the highest volume of data that companies can use to assess the effectiveness of workplace safety measures.
These devices are designed to alert the users should they be in a dangerous situation. Alert devices will likely still have some monitoring capabilities, but this is not their primary function. These are most commonly found in industrial facilities to warn workers about toxic gases or explosion hazards.
There are also some devices that monitor physiological parameters that can also have integrated alert features. Examples include devices that can detect the level of fatigue of users and prompt them to take a break. More innovative alert devices continue to be developed, particularly for industries where workers are regularly exposed to hazardous conditions.
Instructional wearables are designed to help train users in proper workplace practices. These can take many forms. At the simplest level, a wearable device can provide sound cues that inform the user on how they can perform a certain task properly.
An instruction device can also be paired with monitoring features to provide a real-time assessment of a user’s performance. For instance, a wearable device may be able to detect poor posture and provide real-time feedback to the user on how their posture can be corrected.
The potential of using wearable devices to improve workplace safety is only at the early stages of exploration. Should this become a more common practice, there is no doubt that this technology still has lots of room for growth.
The limitation of wearable devices for addressing workplace hazards
As with any new workplace policy, requiring the use of wearable devices is expected to be met with some opposition. This is something that businesses and technology developers recognize. Before wearables can become common in workplace environments, these drawbacks will have to be addressed first:
The difference between wearing a fitness tracker and a work-mandated wearable device for safety is that you likely choose to wear a fitness tracker voluntarily. Requiring the workforce to wear devices that monitor them constantly will certainly create feelings of being watched over perpetually.
There is also the issue of the data being collected by the business from their workforce for regular analysis. Again, this is data that workers may not voluntarily provide even for their employers. It’s easy to understand how workers can take this initiative as a breach of their privacy.
Transparency will go a long way towards addressing concerns over privacy. Workers must also be given ownership of their data. They should be able to see the data generated from their devices and be on board with how the data is analyzed. Employees should also always have the option to opt-out of the program should they be uncomfortable with using the wearable devices.
A sure way to lose support for a wearable safety device program is if a company were to use it to monitor productivity. There probably are not many employees who would appreciate wearing a device that will be used to monitor their performance.
Sticking to the intention of the program is reflective of a company’s management and its general attitude to the workforce. If they maintain the use of these wearable devices for the welfare of the workers, then the program will more likely get a buy-in from the users. However, shifting the objective of the program is one of the most malicious things that management can do and will almost certainly result in the program’s failure.
Adopting a safety program based on the use of wearable devices is going to be very expensive. Aside from the devices themselves, there will have to be a technology infrastructure for collecting and analyzing the data from the devices. This means providing a wider and more reliable network coverage as well as a central server to store and process the data.
A company or business will also have to spend on training. This includes orienting the employees on how to use the devices, as well as training the safety practitioners on how these devices will be integrated into a safety program. This could be difficult considering that data analytics isn’t exactly common in the skillsets of safety officers and practitioners.
If wearable devices are not used carefully, they can prove to be counterproductive. Employees working on delicate tasks or in dangerous environments may not appreciate being disturbed by alarms from their wearable devices. Conversely, employees driving vehicles or operating heavy machinery must be given an option to temporarily shut off any alerts or notifications.
Gathering input from employees is likely the best measure for ensuring that wearable devices do not become sources of distraction. How would they prefer to receive alarms when working on sensitive jobs? Will the use of haptic feedback be a better alternative should a worker be in a noisy environment? Should they be allowed to switch off the devices during their break periods? These are factors that management should consider in developing the safety program.
As you can tell from these possible drawbacks, a safety program that proposes the constant use of wearable devices is not one that should be done haphazardly. The success of the program will rely heavily on buy-in from the workers. With this in mind, management should strive to be transparent as possible about the objectives of the program.
Wearable products being developed for workplace safety
Right now, there are already a handful of startup companies that are developing products for this specific market. Considering that this is just an emerging trend, there is likely still a lot of room for companies that can come up with more innovative products. Here are some of the companies that have captured a lot of attention in the last few years.
GuardHat is a company that specializes in creating wearable and mobile safety devices specialized for use in heavy industries like oil and gas, construction, energy production, and manufacturing.
The company’s flagship products are the HC1 Communicator and HC1 Finder. These are smart hardhats with communications capabilities, proximity detection, and can be tracked using Wi-Fi or cellular networks. It also monitors physiological conditions and can detect abnormalities like an elevated or irregular pulse. It can automatically detect falls and will alert the proper authorities should they happen.
GuardHat also provides IoT and back-office platforms that are designed to complement their products. These consolidate data from the company’s wearable devices but can also work with third-party wearables.
Blackline Safety offers a host of mobile wearable devices for workers in environments with potentially toxic gases. Companies can choose between single-gas or multi-gas detectors.
The single-gas detectors can be customized to have sensors for a long list of standard industrial gases. Conversely, a multi-gas detector can have up to five sensors. These gas detectors automatically log gas concentration data that can be analyzed using the company’s Data Sciences software.
Blackline Safety also has a G7 Lone Worker Monitor that is designed to keep workers safe even if they are alone. This device will send a distress signal if it detects a fall or if the user does not move for an extended time. The product is supported by Blackline’s 24/7 live monitoring services.
NY-based KINETIC is likely one of the biggest companies that manufacture smart wearable devices for workplace safety. The success of KINETIC is made even more impressive by the fact that they offer only a single product for this market.
The Reflex wearable device is the flagship product of KINETIC. It is a small module designed to be fastened to the waistband of the clothes of the user. The Reflex is unique because it is one of a few devices that are capable of biomechanical analysis. This means that the device can detect unsafe posture when the user bends, twists, or over-reaches.
Whenever the device detects unsafe posture, it gives a silent alarm in the form of a vibration. This prompts the user to correct their posture. The data can also be monitored by management in the form of the number of High-Risk Posture (HRP) incidents. This can help companies identity certain tasks or groups of workers that are at an exceptionally high level of danger for posture-related injuries.
Kenzen offers an intriguing multi-sensor device designed to be worn on the arm while doing heavy work. The device measures several health and safety parameters that can detect the level of fatigue or physical exertion of the user.
The Kenzen device measures the user’s core body temperature, heart rate, sweat rate, and level of activity. All of this data is monitored in real-time and can be viewed via the partner mobile app. The app monitors the trend of these physiological parameters and advises the user should they need to stop working.
Kenzen also makes use of the concept of machine learning to establish baseline values for the device. This means that the device gathers data from three consecutive days of the user wearing it to determine a baseline physiological state. Dangerous deviations from this baseline are taken as causes for alarm.
In the future, Kenzen is planning to further develop its products so that they can be used for illness or disease detection. If this becomes successful, then the Kenzen device will likely be useful for more general healthcare monitoring.
Studies done back in 2017 and 2018 have indicated that there are many companies and workers who are ready to accept the technology of wearables for workplace safety. Early estimates of potential market size have likely been compromised by the recent pandemic. This means that the market still has a lot of room for growth.
The market for wearable devices in workplaces is certainly attractive because of how beneficial they can be for multiple parties. The use of wearable devices can improve the workplace conditions of workers, as well as their health and safety. Companies can also benefit in the form of better and more consistent productivity.
It would be interesting to see how the products being developed by the startup companies we have listed here become adopted by more and more companies. This might just change how workplaces or workflows are designed, especially if factors like ergonomics can be quantified and analyzed.