There have been distinct revolutions that have changed the way we look at manufacturing and industry. From the first introduction of steam power to electricity to computers and automation, these tide shifts have transformed our conceptions of efficiency and manufacturing complexity.
Now, as we enter the fourth revolution in industry, we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what artificial intelligence, data analytics, and the interconnectedness of humans and technology can truly accomplish when expressed to their full potential. From what we’ve seen, however, it’s safe to say that the introduction of wearable tech can have a dramatic impact on occupational health and safety of workers as well as uncover new avenues of efficiency.
What do we Mean by WIoT?
Broadly speaking, the wearable internet of things (WIoT) is a category that encompasses devices and other wearable technology worn by workers that are used to monitor a host of activities and environmental conditions for the purposes of safety and efficiency. WIoT provides data-driven insights in real time to deliver better outcomes.
Much like the internet of things itself, WIoT is constantly evolving, with new purpose-built devices introduced into the market every year that have impact on a range of industries, including manufacturing and warehousing, medical and health care, and energy and mining.
The spectrum of WIoT devices is truly remarkable. From the simplest wrist-worn activity monitors used to track worker location and movement to complex robotics-enabled exoskeletons used in construction and warehouse applications, wearable devices represent a hybrid of human and tech that can transform and optimize worker safety and efficiency.
Wearables in Occupational Safety
The fact that there are multiple classes and job-specific iterations of WIoT devices means that each one can impact occupational safety in different ways.
First and foremost, wearables can help encourage safe body movements that reduce the risk of overexertion or strains and pulls resulting from awkward reaching or lifting. Over time, these risky movements can lead to a host of health problems, including musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
While output and productivity are always an important directive for any industrial or manufacturing operation, it shouldn’t come at the expense of worker safety or longevity. Training early on in a worker’s tenure may present safe body movements, but without consistent reinforcement, a worker could fall into bad habits and risk long-term injury.
Wearable devices, such as smart clothing or exoskeletons, can be used to monitor body posture and identify movements in real time to provide feedback on ergonomics. These WIoT have a proven track record, with some industry studies showing a significant reduction in worker strain across manufacturing and warehouse applications. WIoT gloves have even been shown to reduce potentially harmful hand movements by up to 20% within three months.
WIoT devices have also been deployed to dramatically reduce intervention time in the event of an injury or incident, particularly for lone or isolated workers. Internet-connected smart helmets or sensors can detect events, such as falls or the impact of falling objects, which can alert managers for faster safety dispatch.
In certain industries (e.g., chemical refining, oil and gas, and other industries with exposure to toxic substances), WIoT devices can be particularly useful in monitoring air quality for the presence of hazardous chemicals. These smart devices include wearable sensors that constantly track and report air quality. In the event of unsafe air quality, they can alert emergency response teams.
Lastly, with the development of augmented reality, workers are able to be given real-time updates hands-free via goggles or glasses, which can further prevent distractions that can lead to accidents.
There is no single WIoT device that can ensure safety, but this emerging category—when deployed successfully—has the capacity to dramatically reduce workplace accidents, which can in turn reduce days of work lost to injury and worker comp claims.
The Collateral Benefits of WIoT Devices
Safety should obviously be the number one incentive for deploying WIoT devices, but they also represent a host of other benefits to an organization.
Industry 4.0 is defined by the ways in which we use data and the integration between manual labor and machines; wearable devices showcase these hallmarks in ways that uncover new operational efficiencies . The benefit of WIoT devices is they offer a real-time data stream of all activities on an industrial worksite, manufacturing floor or warehouse. By tracking this data, organizations are able to better understand where inefficiencies or bottlenecks occur and remedy them through better process control.
Additionally, these devices can be used to monitor the machines with which workers are interacting. By tracking temperature, vibration and more, it makes it easier to predict maintenance, which can save the company critical downtime if a machine goes offline, while also adding a safety benefit of predicting a machine’s malfunctioning while in use.
Through the use of augmented reality WIoT devices, workers can be given improved task management directives, integrated communication tools, as well as situational training and skills development—all of which can improve efficiency and overall performance.
Investing in the Future
We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of the capabilities of wearables in the workplace. As artificial intelligence continues to evolve, these devices could be the key to unlocking the potential of industry 4.0 by finding never-before-seen insights through data while helping to create safer and more productive workplaces.
Because at the end of the day, safety is the number one priority. The industries that have deployed WIoT devices are already seeing the benefits with reduced worker injuries in both the short and long terms. Even beyond safety, the operational efficiencies that can be uncovered through the data insights offered by WIoT devices can be game-changing.
Beemal Vasani is director of Ansell’s Inteliforz, a connected workplace safety solutions brand.