The New Frontier: Preparing for the Surge of Wearable Technology in the Workplace

Dec. 12, 2014
The business use of wearable-technology devices such as glasses, barcode readers and high-definition cameras is in the early stages, but it likely will expand beyond what we can imagine today. Are you ready?

Wearable technology is a new frontier that employers and safety professionals must prepare to address.   While the business use of wearable-technology devices such as glasses, barcode readers and high-definition cameras is in the early stages, consumer devices such as fitness watches, Google glasses and Apple watches are being sold or soon will be available to the general public for purchase. 

As a consequence, employers can expect more and more employees to sport wearables while at work for non-work-related reasons – something that could affect the safe performance of their jobs.

The potential for improving profitability and productivity likely will ensure the expansion of wearable-technology use in businesses. The current use of wearable technology already has shown that it can provide workers and management with information and data in real time, ensuring that jobs are performed at optimum levels with minimal errors and in compliance with company policies and the law. 

For example, in the retail industry, some sales staff wear wireless headsets so they quickly and accurately can respond to customer inquiries. In the distribution industry, wearable technology in the form of glasses that incorporate high-definition cameras are worn by warehouse employees and used to scan barcodes to ensure that the correct item is selected for shipment to minimize returns, direct the sequence of item selection to improve efficiency, advise of fragile items to prevent breakage and warn of hazards in an effort to avoid injuries.

Risks of Wearable Technology

The use of wearable technology in the workplace poses a significant risk for unprepared businesses. Inappropriate and unlawful use of wearable technology could create issues for employers, resulting in disgruntled employees, injuries and deaths, charges of discrimination and lawsuits. Employers must begin to review the pros and cons of using wearable technology for business purposes and whether to allow employees to use wearables in the workplace for business or personal reasons. 

Employers that fail to consider the potential effects of wearable technology on their businesses could be forced to waste human and financial capital dealing with resentment from employees who feel their privacy rights have been violated; potential injuries and fatalities of employees who were distracted by the use of the wearable technology; and legal claims. Moreover, the expected improvements in profitability and productivity will not be attained if injuries and property damage occur.

The introduction of wearable technology into the workplace by both employers and employees directly will impact employee safety. The use of wearables by employees, particularly when used by employees for personal reasons, can take their focus and concentration away from the safe performance of their jobs. Like the use of cellphones by employees while driving, improper usage can result in significant safety issues.

Risk Assessment for Wearables

Regardless of whether wearables are worn for business or personal reasons, to ensure employee use does not result in accidents, injuries and fatalities, employers should perform an assessment of the potential hazards resulting from wearable technology in regard to all jobs. Wearable technology might have no effect whatsoever on the safe performance of many jobs, but some will be affected, and these are the ones on which employers must focus. 

Based on the results of the assessments, employers should develop policies and procedures addressing the identified hazards. These policies and procedures should cover the permissible uses of wearable technology in the workplace, how to use wearables correctly and the consequences if employees fail to comply. These policies and procedures clearly should provide information to employees regarding the safe use of wearable technology. Satisfying this need may require employers to translate the policies and procedures into several languages, based on the makeup of their workforce.

Once the safety assessments are completed and policies and procedures are drafted, employers should train workers on the policies and procedures, giving them an opportunity to ask questions and voice any concerns. As necessary, but at least annually or whenever there is a change in the workplace or an accident, businesses should review and revise the safety policies and procedures to cover any new hazards that exist to ensure safety risks are minimized or eliminated. 

As part of the training, you should obtain a written acknowledgement signed by employees stating their understanding of the policies and procedures and their intent to comply with them. Whenever the safety policies and procedures are revised, employers should retrain employees and again obtain a signed, written acknowledgment that the employees have received the training. 

Managers and supervisors also should receive training on the wearable-technology safety policies and procedures. The development and revision of these policies and procedures, as well as other employment policies and procedures, are of little value to employers unless managers and supervisors are trained in them and unless they consistently are applied to prevent claims of discrimination. Managers and supervisors may find it difficult to enforce the wearable-technology safety policies in comparison to other policies because most wearables are small and inconspicuous. Regardless, managers and supervisors must be committed to making a diligent effort to do so.

Review Non-Safety Policies

To further ensure that wearable technology is used appropriately and lawfully in the workplace, employers should review and revise non-safety-related policies and procedures and develop ones, as needed, to cover compliance with other employment and labor laws. 

There are several important policies companies should consider, including ones that prohibit discrimination, harassment and retaliation; address reasonable accommodation; cover the use and misuse of company property; protect confidential and proprietary information, involve electronic communications and social media use; prohibit unauthorized audio and video recording and transmission; outline appropriate workplace attire; and cover the operation of motor vehicles. To ensure a safe, healthy and productive workplace, all employees, including managers and supervisors, should receive training on them, and their enforcement must be consistent to avoid claims of discrimination.

The pros of introducing any new technology into the workplace often overshadow the cons until something awful happens that forces employers to refocus their efforts. Employers can minimize the likelihood of being in that position by actively evaluating the pros and cons of wearable technology and making suitable revisions and additions to company policies and procedures. To do otherwise could negate the positive impact that wearable technology was expected to have on the bottom line.

Tracy L. Moon Jr. is a partner in the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP. He can be reached at (404) 240-4246 or at [email protected].

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