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Workplace Safety

How Wearable Sensors Are Promoting Safety at Work

March 16, 2020

For centuries coal miners carried canaries into the mines, relying on the birds to alert them to unsafe levels of carbon monoxide and other deadly gases. The birds were low-tech “early indicators,” if you will, and they were eventually replaced by life-saving monitors.

In addition to the human toll, workplace injuries and illnesses cost U.S. employers an estimated $61 billion annually today. So, it’s not surprising that the safety industry continuously looks for better ways to protect workers. The increasing development and use of wearable sensors (“wearables”) on the job is the latest example.

Wearables at Work

The wearables business quickly has grown to a multi-billion-dollar industry. In the consumer space, fitness trackers are a common wearable. The wristwatch-like devices track physical activity, heartbeat, sleep quality and more to help users improve their health.

For work settings (i.e., enterprise use), producers are embedding sensors into clothing, headgear, goggles, gloves, exoskeletons and other devices, where they are used to monitor health conditions, alert to safety issues, amplify strength and perception, prevent injury-inducing motions and more. For example:

  • In a manufacturing plant, a technician may wear a wristband that detects when he is too close to a piece of dangerous equipment. The sensor may “tell” the equipment to shut down to prevent an injury.
  • A technician may wear goggles that display instructions for performing a certain type of work, enabling her to keep her hands free and her focus on the job.
  • A construction engineer may wear a vest with an embedded sensor that tracks movement and alerts him (and possibly the site manager or someone back at headquarters) if he enters a hazardous area.
  • Someone who works in dangerously hot conditions may be required to wear a hat with embedded sensors that monitor for signs of heat stroke and warn both the worker and the manager when work needs to stop.
  • A property inspector may wear gloves that sense and warn about chemical exposure.

The potential benefits of wearable technology are obvious. Injuries prevented and lives saved. Downtime decreased and productivity increased. In some instances, where risks can be proven to be reduced or eliminated altogether, insurance costs could potentially be reduced.

However, there are other considerations regarding introducing wearables on the job.

Consider Before Investing in Wearables

Just because a technology exists doesn’t mean it’s right for all circumstances. The first question to ask is whether it makes sense to incorporate wearables on the job. Perhaps process changes or other simple actions would be just effective … or maybe not.

If the technology seems as though it could be beneficial, the second question to ask is whether it’s been proven to work. Some wearable technology is still relatively new. Ask the provider for proof. Ask about how easy or difficult it is to implement and manage. Ask what kind of data management (and IT or other staffing) is required to get the full benefit of the technology being considered. Case studies and references can be helpful.

Because some of this technology can be costly, a third question is how you will prevent it from being lost, stolen or damaged. If you invest in it, will you need a secure storage space? Will you need special maintenance procedures and someone to conduct them?

A fourth question to consider—and perhaps the most important—is whether employees will accept the technology, due to privacy concerns. If the wearable collects biometric data, for example, employees might wonder how you intend to use the data, beyond safety. For example, if sensors reveal a medical condition, a worker may fear losing his or her job. Transparency, training and ethical use of collected information are important factors in successfully implementing wearables on the job.

Think Strategically About Safety

Anything that can improve the safety and health of employees—as well as the bottom line—is worth considering. But as with any business decision, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons. An experienced risk manager can offer strategic insights into the potential benefits of incorporating wearables on the job.

The above information does not constitute advice. Always contact your insurance broker or trusted advisor for insurance-related questions.

Sean Majewski, Casualty Loss Control Risk Advisor

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