Is Wearable Technology The Future of Safety Management?
The Internet of Things has significantly enhanced the efficiency and safety of our day-to-day lives over the past several years. With the click of an icon, connected devices let us see who is in our house, control the thermostat, give our dogs a treat, monitor the afternoon commute, count our steps, gauge our sleep quality and more.
At the same time, these same technologies are being used to improve workplace safety across industries. Consider the transportation industry, where cameras and sensors can now monitor a driver’s locations, driving habits, level of fatigue, and more. There is a growing opportunity and market for connected wearable devices to help prevent injury: Are employees lifting objects correctly? Are they walking in hazardous areas, such as under a crane or near toxic chemicals?
Wearables can collect many data points, such as motion metrics for specific parts of the body and environmental factors including temperature, heat index, and humidity. In general, the data collected will show what employees are doing correctly. What makes wearables so effective is their ability to help safety managers efficiently find the zebra in the herd of horses.
The Data Difference
One popular area to deploy wearables is around lifting, a key risk factor in on-the-job injuries in many industries. The data can show at what angle employees bend, the duration of the bend, whether they bend with a twist, whether they accelerate during the movement, and whether they accelerate while twisting. Safety managers can sift through this information to focus on the bends that are likely to cause injuries over time. By identifying these occurrences and corresponding processes, the safety manager can intervene and help the employee adjust to prevent the movements that may put them at risk.
The data from wearables can also determine which tasks employees are performing incorrectly and what factors may be contributing to poor performance. Fatigue, fitness level, skill level, and job design can all factor into the likelihood of injury. Collecting data through wearable devices allows safety managers to determine when an employee is performing a task improperly or whether the task is poorly designed. Ergonomic teams can then intercede and evaluate such variables as the height of workstations or the repetition of the task. The key is to prevent employees from developing a backache or lower lumbar injury—the No. 1 reported injury for workers’ compensation claims.
Companies with the most workplace injuries are the least likely to adopt innovations in health and safety strategies.
Three Levels of an Effective Wearable Program
It is not enough for wearable devices to only collect and report data to safety managers. An effective wearable device program will also provide immediate feedback to the employee so that they can adjust their process. An effective wearable device program integrates three levels of feedback and monitoring:
- Haptic response: The wearable device should be configured for the employee’s individual needs and be equipped with a noticeable haptic response that informs the employee they are doing something wrong and must correct it immediately.
- Scorecards: The employee and supervisors should be provided with their scorecard on a daily, weekly, monthly, and/or yearly basis. The ability to set thresholds by process is a key feature of a scorecard. This enables employees and their supervisors to track their improvement or lack thereof.
- Risk targeting: The system should allow the supervisor to see which employees have the most potential for injury or incident. This will allow the manager to intervene and provide those high-risk employees with training and other tools for improvement.
A wearables program won’t work if the technology is only implemented with one person in each department. The strength of wearable technology is that it provides safety managers with a measurable comparison. It is therefore important to use wearables with a large enough group to develop a benchmark, which will then allow safety managers to identify outliers. With a benchmark, managers can compare processes across an organization so the ergonomist knows where to start.
While it may seem that companies with the worst track records and the most workplace injuries would be the most eager to embrace wearable technology, they are in fact the least likely to adopt innovations in health and safety strategies. This is likely due to the fact that their safety problems are so systemic that they don’t know where to start.
Companies with good or great safety records are already leaders in the adoption of wearable technologies in the workplace. They understand the importance of the health and well-being of their employees and feel that they can still improve their safety programs. Additionally, their organized safety programs allow for them to easily integrate the technology into their existing strategy.
Another challenge for companies is that employees will likely be resistant to the technology until they are clear on how the data will be used. Many employees fear that the data will be used to punish or terminate those who perform poorly according to the device. Therefore, safety managers and other leaders need to be clear about how the wearables will be used and why.
Wearable technologies are developing at a rapid pace. The geo-positioning components can already alert employees if they are in banned or dangerous work areas, and in the not-so-distant future, geo-positioning may allow wearables to “talk” to machines and buildings. The wearable device of the future could warn employees of their proximity to an active forklift or limit the number of employees who can be near or engage with a specific machine.
Employees are an organization’s greatest asset. Using wearable technologies can help mitigate workplace injuries by reinforcing positive behavior and creating a culture of safety and efficiency. Wearables not only improve your employees’ safety, but they may also prove helpful in defending your organization against claims, ultimately protecting its bottom line.