Ready to wear: Wearable technology could boost workplace safety, but concerns remain
Wearable technology entails attaching mobile electronics to the body for a broad spectrum of purposes. It covers all types of devices, from the small fitness device on your wrist to a full-body exoskeleton.
In the safety world, “wearables” can include “smart” personal protective equipment, glasses with heads-up displays and hard hats with sensors. What most of these devices have in common is they give safety professionals and other employees a set of watchful eyes to help ensure the health and well-being of the workforce, particularly lone workers.
“The greatest benefit of this technology is that, as a worker, you’re not alone in terms of your safety,” said John Snawder, co-director of the NIOSH Center for Direct Reading and Sensor Technologies and acting chief of the agency’s Biomonitoring and Health Assessment Branch.
To some workers, however, these watchful eyes may be perceived as prying eyes. That’s why experts say it’s important to lay down the groundwork and gain the trust of employees before turning to these new-wave devices.
“If people see that this information is monitoring their productivity, absolutely, they are not happy about that,” said SangHyun Lee, an associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan. “If it’s used for safety and health, they are more open.”
‘A big benefit’
One use for wearables, Snawder said, is taking a device that’s already in use, such as a personal gas monitor, and giving it the ability to send data to another interested party.
“They’ve always had the workers wearing them for personal safety,” Snawder said, “but now that they can be associated with a wearable, or networked, or with the internet of things, a guy in an office can look at his desk and see what the monitor is measuring.”
Another potential use is proximity detection inside mines or at construction sites. In December 2017, Parsons Corp., a technology-focused defense, security and infrastructure firm, began using radio-frequency identification, or RFID, at some of its jobsites to study interactions between workers and machines.
Parsons’ RFID is a fob that attaches to a vest or the inside of a hard hat, said Anthony Miller, the company’s senior vice president of safety, health, environment and sustainability. With that technology, the organization initiated a program to measure how often workers got within a certain number of feet to equipment.
After getting a baseline reading for these exposures, “we started managing to that baseline,” Miller said. The desire to manage those interactions stemmed from a “pretty significant” near miss involving two pieces of equipment, which “put us in the position where we knew we needed to do something.’
“The typical activity hazard analysis, the job safety briefings that we do every day, all of that is fantastic,” Miller added, “but we weren’t managing our exposure the way that we really wanted to.”
Getting the full picture of potentially serious injury and fatality events on a worksite and, ultimately, changing behaviors are among the benefits of the technology, Miller noted. He also said that on one particular jobsite with workers using wearables, the organization experienced a decrease in “events”: unwanted human-to-machine and machine-to-machine interactions.
“A lot of times you don’t know your exposure until you have an event,” Miller said. “You usually didn’t know until you had an interaction or a near miss. Now, we can see those and see if they are SIF events. We can talk to employees and see what’s driving them to get that close. So, it’s the behavior change that’s a big benefit for us.”
Lee has participated in a number of studies on wearable technology. One of his latest used electroencephalogram devices to monitor workers’ stress levels at construction sites.
When data from the EEG devices was fed through two deep learning neural networks (a set of algorithms designed to mimic human thought), the researchers could discern which workers were stressed with an 86.6 percent accuracy, or “at least 6 percent” better than other stress recognition methods.
In another study, Lee and U-M doctoral student Houtan Jebelli found that using wristband-type biosensors to measure stress, physical demands and risk perception among construction workers was feasible.
Snawder said devices that measure fatigue can focus on aspects such as how often workers’ heads move up and down or their eyes close, and for how long, and even how straight they walk.
“Your stride changes when you’re tired,” Snawder said. “You get more postural sway when you become fatigued.”
Another area in which wearables can aid worker safety is ergonomics. Authors of a study published in September in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health said that, in recent years, “the most innovative wearable technologies and electronic smart devices, without interfering with the work activities performed by workers, have been introduced to improve the biomechanical risk assessment adapting it to all the work conditions and overcoming the limits of the current standardized methods.”
Likewise, during a panel discussion at the 2017 Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s annual meeting, Ming-Lun Lu from NIOSH’s Division of Applied Research and Technology said the use of wearable technology “presents a great potential for researchers to address the limitations of current risk assessment tools for musculoskeletal disorders associated with manual work.” Those current risk assessment tools include ergonomic checklists and video or photo risk analyses, Lu added.
With the varied measurements that involve personal data comes one obvious concern: worker privacy.
In January 2017, NIOSH published a proposed ethical framework for wearable sensors. Among its many considerations, the agency says “the monitoring program’s policy, procedures and objectives are disclosed in clear and understandable terms,” and that employees fully understand them.
NIOSH also suggests employers be transparent in how data is used and allow for employees to opt out of a program. “Consent is essential to autonomy,” the agency states.
Getting workers involved in the process early can pave the way for better acceptance, Snawder said.
“I think the more you can communicate and let them know the reasons and the intentions – all of those things really help get the worker involved and get more acceptance of the change,” he said.
To alleviate some of the concerns, Lee suggests setting up the program so that the information is used only by the worker for self-assessment, by a crew of workers that has to look out for one another, or for detecting trends (e.g., which days or what time of the year workers are most stressed).
Distraction is another potential issue. Snawder and Mark Schall, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at Auburn University, both recommend the use of engineering controls. For example, employees would not receive alerts when they’re within certain areas on a factory floor or while driving, but the wearable would continue to gather data.
A wearable device that vibrates might prove especially distracting for workers, but Lee described one scenario in which a buzzing, or haptic, alert could help – warning employees in noisy workplaces such as construction sites.
Another area of concern for organizations is the cost of wearable technologies and their return on investment. In addition, employers likely will need to devote resources to translating the data gathered (through computer programs or additional manpower) because, as Miller pointed out, most safety professionals aren’t well-versed in analytics.
Parsons had to transfer personnel from another part of the company to set up that analytical process and get data that was “clear and concise,” Miller said. “We had to involve other aspects of the organization that we didn’t plan on involving, but it was a good thing.”
Lee highlighted one potential cost savings: lower insurance premiums. Miller said the return on investment on Parsons’ use of RFIDs has been “tenfold,” because it has gained helpful information to provide to other worksites throughout the organization.
“We’ve shared best practices gained from this jobsite with jobs in the Middle East,” he said. “Having those conversations is fantastic, and it’s something we didn’t really anticipate.”
Change is coming
Cost and concerns about privacy are among the reasons some safety professionals are at least somewhat hesitant about using wearable technology, according to a survey led by Schall published in 2018.
However, more than half of the respondents (509 of 952) said they’re in favor of using wearables to “track relevant metrics for several common OSH risk factors.” Another 27.3 percent (260 of 952) said they have at least some interest.
That acceptance likely will grow as “people eventually get used to it and it’s just part of their normal day,” Snawder said.
According to a survey from Zebra Technologies Corp. published in July 2017, half of manufacturers plan to adopt wearable technology by 2022, and 55 percent of current users say they will expand their use. The overall wearable technology market, both at and away from work, is expected to reach $60 billion by that same year, according to ABI Research.
“I think the benefits are workers are more aware of their environment and the environment is more responsive to the worker,” Snawder said. “Some of these biometric things where the workers are just healthier, better rested, not fatigued, not overheated and things like that, I think, again, it’s productive. It’s healthy to the worker. It’s a better quality of life, but it’s also good for business.”