Just as wearables are changing the way we track our daily health performance could the same hold true one day for how companies keep workers safe

How Wearables Could Disrupt Workplace Safety

July 7, 2017
Many companies already offer wellness plans with some sort of incentive tied to using wearables to reach health goals, so could the next iteration include carrots and sticks regarding workplace safety?

Outside of being hooked up to a slew of intimidating monitors, there’s probably no better way to get a good pulse of your physiological performance and health than wearable technology.

But just as wearables are changing the way we track our daily health performance, could the same hold true one day for how companies keep workers safe? The answer is yes.

In fact, we’re already starting to see that evolution in athletics.

“Wearables, which harness the power of the rapidly expanding Internet of Things technology, clearly offer more opportunity for major advancements in workplace safety than we have seen in decades,” said Paul Marushka, Sphera Solutions’ president and CEO. “It’s not surprising that wearables are starting to disrupt sports with their ability to help keep athletes on the field, but the potential opportunities in the workplace are seemingly endless for safety.”

It’s no secret that athletes – such as Olympic athletes who set a world record at the Rio Games last year for using wearables – are employing this emerging technology to help them succeed. So why not the workforce?

In Good Company

While the use of wearables in athletics might generate more of a buzz, there are far more people who are not competitive athletes than people who are. Those non-athletes, too, use wearables to monitor their health, and employers are taking notice.

Many companies already offer wellness plans with some sort of incentive tied to using wearables to reach health goals, so could the next iteration include carrots and sticks regarding workplace safety? Undoubtedly.

As we’ve seen with wearables in athletics, the technology has evolved to not only monitor health performance but also safety as well, so we can logically assume there will be a similar progression in the workplace where injuries are unfortunately common.

The Future Is Now

Thanks to advances in the Internet of Things (IoT) – which Bosch analysts predict will become a $250 billion market in three years – and, of course, consumer demand, the wearable market is rapidly expanding. Global Industry Analysts Inc. projects the global wearables market alone will hit $30.6 billion by 2020.

Additionally, a 2014 online survey from The Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc. found, for example, that 27 percent of U.S. adults, 28 percent of French adults and a whopping 56 percent of adults from India said that improving safety was the No. 1 factor that would make workers more eager to use wearables in the workplace.

“Wearable technology, once the domain of professional athletes and sports physiotherapists, is now being used in construction to make data-driven decisions and assess on a micro-level the way workers are moving every day,” said Andrew Ronchi, CEO of dorsaVi, an Australian-based biotechnology company, in an XOEye blog. “Safety managers are paying more attention to methods for reducing injury and costs while improving productivity, the safety culture and education of workers.”

What’s Out There and What’s in Store?

The safety wearables landscape is changing rapidly as technology improves. A recent Verdantix report on wearables and safety offered some topical tidbits.

“In the industrial space,” Verdantix wrote, “wearables meant to monitor a person’s condition in real time can include bracelets, hats, gloves, industrial hygiene samplers, or even clothing. The defining characteristic of this category is that the wearable is meant only to acquire information about a person for use in determining the risk of undesired outcomes.”

One example of that is a company called SmartCap. Its eponymous product looks like a regular baseball cap but doubles as a wearable that monitors user fatigue. The caps are especially designed for truck drivers who are at risk of drowsy driving. The collected information can be sent to a device in the truck’s cab or even an external location to alert the driver or someone monitoring the worker that the driver is becoming sleepy.

Beyond monitoring sleepy drivers, some companies are tackling safe travels around a work site. Companies like Redpoint Positioning offer a real-time location system that promises precise GPS-like capabilities. In a construction situation, for instance, a supervisor can map out the areas that are unsafe for workers. Should an employee amble into those locales, the workers’ safety vest would immediately light up

Those examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

In the oil and gas industry, for instance, wearables have a ton of potential to help keep workers safe. As Blaine Tookey, a technology principal at BP, told I-Global Intelligence for the CIO, “Wearables can carry out a lot of external sensing that doesn’t happen at the moment, providing real-time feedback about the environment to the control room and giving feedback to associated workers rather than just the individual.”

Collecting data to establish comprehensive workforce analytics with any of the aforementioned devices or any other wearables will play an essential role in revolutionizing the way companies tackle workplace safety – but it’s not the only way to use the devices.

Imagine “a wearable you can talk into and that you can video things with,” explained Todd Lunsford, Sphera’s director of process improvement. As workers go about their day, they could document incidents or near-misses on the spot rather than having to type something in later.

Companies like XOEye Technologies already offer similar technology. Picture a goggle form of Google Glass.

The ability to send information to a worker through a wearable is the next frontier, Lunsford added. Not only will workers be able to collect data, but also having someone off-site who can monitor workers could help prevent injuries.

There are also wearables out there, like the Daqri helmet, that incorporate augmented reality to offer schematics and interactive holograms to help workers do their job while improving safety.

Data Overload

Wearables have the potential to bring companies gigs and gigs of safety-related data that was once considered unattainable.

But with that bonanza of data also comes real challenges such as the potential for data paralysis. Companies will need to be able to cut the data in sensible ways that gives them the information they need to generate the predictive analytics necessary to help keep workers safe. Incidentally, while predictive analytics have been a mainstay in the financial industries for decades – think FICO scores – they are a recent innovation in the environmental health and safety space.

Perhaps counterintuitively, analytics can show, for instance, when a worker or supervisor is not following through on safety initiatives in a timely manner, which gives the company great insight into problems in its safety-reporting culture.

Gold Standard Is the Goal

Remember the 2016 Olympic wearable example? It turns out the U.S. won 121 medals in the Rio Games compared with 103 at the 2012 London Games. Mounir Zok, the director of technology and innovation for the U.S. Olympic Committee told Sports Illustrated that wearables played a huge role in that.

If wearables have become such a game-changer in the competitive world of sports, it’s clear they offer a golden opportunity for workplace safety improvements as well in areas that were once thought impossible. All of that said, remember a wearable is just a means to an end. No one device can magically make a company safer for its workers, but a safety-focused culture that focuses on training workers properly and encourages those employees to speak up when they spot a risk will. That’s the true gold standard.

Andy Hosman is the vice president of operational risk solutions at Sphera. He has more than 17 years of experience in designing, developing, and implementing risk management solutions to help customers assess, mitigate, manage and monitor their risk more effectively. Prior to joining Sphera, Hosman was a senior vice president of product management at Marsh ClearSight with responsibility for the risk, safety and analytics product lines.

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