As wearable technology becomes more widely used by consumers to text with friends or measure fitness activity, the devices are becoming more widely used across a wide range of industries to help with workers’ safety and return to work after an injury.
Wearable technology is typically thought of as fitness trackers and smart watches, but wearable technology includes any advanced electronic device with sensors that can be worn or carried on the body. A wearable transmits the data through a network connection which can be either cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or GPS. The smartphone would be considered a wearable since it offers a diversity of built-in technologies to measure a variety of aspects of people’s lives.
There are two types of wearables, active and passive. Passive wearables are any device that monitors motion, air quality or other environmental factors. Passive wearables can also transmit real-time safety warnings to workers’ phones or other hardware. Passive wearables can also deliver ergonomics and safety reports to managers.
“Employers can then use the information gathered from the passive wearable to implement process changes and new safety policies,” Brian Ricketts, loss control manager for LUBA Workers’ Comp, told the Reporter during a Microsoft Teams virtual conference.
An active wearable usually comes with its own hardware and software.
Although the use of wearables is being tested by insurance companies and other employers, the potential of wearables is still in the proof of concept stage. Some companies are expressing interest in exploring uses for wearables as advances are made. Only a handful of larger companies have piloted the technology because it is expensive.
“Active wearables can immediately impact a worker’s performance on a particular task,” Ricketts said. “For example, exoskeletons allow people to lift heavy objects without straining their backs,” Ricketts added. According to the LUBA News Winter 2020 edition “Wearables in the Workplace,” Delta Air Lines is testing the Sarco Guardian XO, a battery powered full-body exoskeleton designed to enable the user to lift up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours at a time without strain or fatigue.
In addition the article goes on to report that General Motors and NASA have spent time working with Bioservo, a manufacturer in Sweden, to create the Robo-Glove. The Robo-Glove uses tendon like features to increase grip strength and reduce strain.
Employers are always looking at ways to improve employee safety, and utilizing wearable technology is one way that an employer can improve employee safety.
“The benefits of wearables at work include preventing injuries, keeping aging workers on the job longer, reducing the threat of automation, measuring environmental conditions, relaying real-time data collection, and analyzing historic trends,” Ricketts said.
Ricketts, citing information from the National Safety Council, told the Reporter that the most common workplace injuries stem from overexertion such as lifting, lowering and repetitive motion; being struck or caught in a piece of equipment, or slips, trips and falls.
People often think of wearable technology as just devices aimed at the fitness market. But in some work environments that are hazardous, with some employees working in areas that are remote or possibly in dangerous settings, wearable technology can save lives.
One such example cited in the LUBA News is an employee working outside during extremely high temperatures where the wearable technology could be used for early detection and prevention of heat stroke. In this instance it could be an in-ear use wearable health monitor called a “hearable” that would measure three vital parameters, core body temperature, sweat rate, and sweat or interstitial sodium ion concentration. These key measurements can alert an individual to trouble in advance and could potentially save his or her life.
Another instance noted in the LUBA News of wearable technology keeping workers safe is a wearable device that goes on an individual’s wrist that can detect electrical shock potential in the vicinity of the wearable device. In addition, there are various apps for smart phones that block mobile phone use while driving that would cut down on the number of automobile accidents.
“Automobile accidents are another aspect of increased costs for workers’ comp insurers that could be reduced by the use of technology,” Ricketts said.
“When it comes to workers’ compensation, wearables are in their infancy,” Ricketts told the Reporter.
A major factor in the workers’ compensation industry is the worker’s desire to return to work after healing from a work related injury. In some instances, wearables can help an injured worker get back on the job sooner with the use of exoskeletons or wearables that measure output, endurance, and basic medical monitoring which can ensure that returning employees pace themselves during their return and do not reinjure themselves.
An iPhone app called Kinesics, which was created in Louisiana, helps measure range of motion. It is used in some instances to rehabilitate injured workers. Devices like this can be helpful in setting baselines for injured workers so that improvements can be measured to qualify employees to return to work.
Recently, the National Basketball Association purchased thousands of smart rings called Oura for players and staff to use while in the NBA Bubble during the 2020 basketball season. The Oura rings provide pulse oximeters, thermometers, respiratory functions, and the ability to measure other health metrics. Kelli Troutman, senior vice president, director of communications and community relations at LUBA Workers’ Comp, has been wearing an Oura ring to explore the use of wearables in the workplace.
“It measures things like sleep patterns, activities and readiness, and with a toddler at home my sleep patterns have been up and down,” Troutman told the Reporter during the video conference. “Without adequate sleep, you can begin to lose focus at work or become less attentive, increasing the likelihood of a mistake or an accident at work,” Troutman added. “It is particularly important right now with the added stress and disruptions caused by the pandemic,” Troutman said.
Over the past year, the wearables’ market has made significant advancements. New studies are being launched by major companies with the only limit being the imagination of the people involved. With talented engineers and scientists working to solve the issue, the next five years are likely to feel like something out of a science fiction movie, according to LUBA News.