From exoskeletons to biometric and GPS monitoring devices, employers across numerous industries are jumping in and gearing up to make significant investments in wearables.
While the lure of these evolving technologies is undeniable, the costs of purchasing and implementing wearables can be substantial. Without careful planning, wearables might not deliver either the anticipated results or a meaningful ROI.
In collaboration with human resources, risk management, legal and other functions, EHS professionals can play a key role in helping their firms develop and implement successful strategies for acquiring and deploying wearable technology. As decisions to implement wearables are made, they can also help determine what information should be captured, as well as how it will be interpreted (and by whom), and ultimately used to make measurable improvements in workplace safety and work processes.
Wearables hardly are a panacea for solving the spectrum of workplace safety and productivity issues. Thus, their acquisition and deployment should include an assessment of potential issues and a framework for addressing them.
Potential pitfalls with wearables include information overload, integrating wearables into employee-focused safety systems, corporate exposures with personal data collection and protection, potential liabilities with health-related monitoring and specific logistical issues in providing meaningful feedback.
Beware of Information Overload
A starting point for making critical decisions about wearables is to pose the straightforward question: What are the potential different outcomes your firm realistically can expect to achieve by investing in wearable technology?
In fact, most employers aren't set up to be research labs. Ensuring appropriate data collection, study design and statistical analysis can add significant (but necessary) costs to this initiative.
A careful review of your firm's work processes might yield all the information you need to reduce injuries and improve productivity. For instance, if employees repetitively stack 40-pound boxes overhead, is a wearable spinal loading measurement system needed to determine if this is good job design?
Determine the Right Systems
The fundamental idea behind many wearables is ultimately to change behavior. Evidence gathered from years of progress in this area is that behavior predominantly is driven by organizational culture and systems to reinforce desired behaviors and discourage deviations.
If a tool to measure behavior is used, then the feedback loop – positive reinforcement, habit-making time measurement and further reinforcement – already must be in place.
Consider the example of employees stacking 40-pound boxes overhead: if employees receive an audible warning from the wearable device indicating they are exceeding a determined "higher risk" level, what action does the system expect? As long as the work design is stacking boxes overhead, postural reminders are unlikely to measurably reduce risk.
The question then becomes: At what point should the employer invest in a different stacking system as opposed to using biofeedback? From a less technical perspective, this is similar to the circumstances surrounding the failure of back belts in preventing workplace injuries. One argument was that the belt served as "a reminder not to bend forward." Of course, when the task design required a certain posture, the reminder was a failed work practice control.
If the right systems aren't in place, employees could be held responsible for accidents, incidents or poor performance that actually are the result of bad design.
Watch for Privacy and Data Protection
There are numerous privacy issues associated with gathering and maintaining personal information of employees. Check with your risk management department to find out if your firm has insurance that covers the personal data about individual employees that you will be collecting and storing.
If you're using wearables to record vital statistics such as heart rate, temperature, pain response, etc., that may trigger HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliance issues as well as problems associated with tracking employees on anything other than a voluntary basis. In some instances, you may not be able to require employees to participate in data collection if that was not explicitly disclosed at hiring.
Be Cognizant of Liability Exposures
Some data collected through wearables may create other potentially significant exposures for employers. Suppose an employee starts a new job at a delivery service and is fitted with wearable devices to monitor back angle and heart rate.
The employee has seven weeks of work hardening and the pace of work gets progressively faster every day. Then, the employee suddenly suffers a fatal heart attack during this transition period.
Subsequently, the employee's spouse sues the firm based on the belief that through the monitoring, the employer should have noticed signs of cardiac distress and intervened.
Determine Logistical Issues and Real-Time Feedback
Wearables provide feedback for individual employees or the system. However, if employers only review data collection at the end of the day, they may miss opportunities to provide reinforcement exactly at the time of positive behavior. While real-time feedback elements can be built into any system, they typically require additional planning and resources.
In any setting, obtaining the best results starts with a clear understanding of objectives, a careful examination of all alternatives accompanied by a cost-benefit analysis, an examination of potential risks and thorough knowledge of how information will be captured, analyzed and used by your organization.
Find the benefit
Where is the benefit? Wearable sensors may allow employers to get data beyond what the eye can see. What percentage of an employee's maximum pinch grip force is this task requiring? Is the worker walking in a position that increases their risk of fall? These types of scenarios are being investigated with wearable technology right now. Rather than making broad assessments, we are able to gather information on the nuance of risk to an individual.
To paraphrase some comments made during the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, technology cannot take over the "personhood" of an individual. To continue on a responsible and sustainable path, we must keep workers and the human element front and center of our dialogue.
Rachel Michael, CPE, is a senior consultant in the Ergonomics Practice Group of Aon Global Risk Consulting. She also is a director and vice president on the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics (BCPE) and serves on the advisory board of Ergonomics Practice Specialty for the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.