Technological advances in the world of personal protective equipment are presenting new opportunities for employers to significantly reduce workplace injuries.
These advances have become especially crucial as companies address the rising costs of workplace safety, currently estimated at over $20 billion per year.
The medical costs are even more staggering. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than two million workers are impacted by carpal tunnel syndrome each year, with an average overall cost of $94 billion.
This situation has resulted in employers and insurers actively looking for more effective ways to keep workers safe.
Wearable technology at the forefront of this effort.
What Is It?
Wearable technology encompasses a broad spectrum of devices, ranging from small fitness detectors on a participant’s wrist, to full-body exoskeleton devices, or even glasses with heads-up displays and hard hats with sensors.
The technology allows employers to take risk assessments to the next level by providing an in-depth understanding of the demands any given task or job is putting on the human body.
It allows employers to collect accurate movement data and muscle activity information, regardless of where the individual is performing the task.
In turn, employers gain insight into where injury risks might occur in the workplace.
If an employee is lifting a heavy object and twists in a way that places strains on their body, the employer now has the data to highlight the complexities of the turn, and make adjustments to prevent injuries in the future.
Wearable technology's ability to add objective data about movement patterns and recognize the effects of fatigue, gives ergonomists a critical new tool in reducing workplace risks.
Though employees have brought up concerns in some workplaces about a potential breach of privacy, the National Institute of Occupational Safety has recommended companies alleviate concerns through transparency.
They also advise companies to give employees the opportunity to opt out of programs. Other experts suggest using the data for self-assessment or within a group of workers.
Still, wearable technology is here to stay. It is predicted expenditures for this kind of equipment will more than double from 2021 to 2022, from $27 billion to $60 billion.
Safety professionals are influencing this trend. More than 75% of safety professionals in one national survey said they were either in favor of using wearable technology in the workplace, or had some interest in the devices.
Products At Work
The ability to collect and deliver data about a worker’s environment, activities and biometric conditions, and use that information to reduce injuries is hard to ignore.
Wearable technology shows potential specifically with return-to-work programs because it systematically documents the physical requirements of a job. Companies can objectively see the demands and make more informative decisions.
An example of this was documented by an aircraft manufacturer who used wearable technology to lower rates of overexertion injuries and chronic pain.
Employees were required to work alongside and underneath the aircraft fuselage, performing welding, installation, and finishing tasks for extended periods of time. Overtime, employees reported high levels of pain after work and on their days off.
By using modular ergonomic exoskeletons, designed to supplement the workers’ natural strength, and support upper extremities, workers found it much easier to reach or look overhead.
The employer consequently saved thousands of dollars when musculoskeletal disorder claims reduced dramatically. Productivity and morale also improved.
The devices have already begun to adapt to the modern day, getting cheaper, smaller, and lighter, which has encouraged more employers to utilize the technology in their risk management initiatives.
Smart glasses are one tool being used to detect sleepiness and share visual information. Smart clothing monitors heart rate variability and breathing volume.
Other devices provide warnings when a worker is close to danger. Some devices can even signal that the body needs a break due to heat stress.
If there is some data an employer wants specifically, the technology is flexible. The sensors can be deployed in numerous configurations, which also make them easy to use and unobtrusive.
In many instances, devices are deployed on hardhats, safety glasses, or other personal protective equipment.
Clip-ons can be attached to shirts, vests, and belts. Wearables can even be embedded in the soles of shoes.
Common sensors include actuators, biosensors, and gyroscopes.
Virtual reality headsets are among the wearable tools too, which are more frequently being used in safety training. They allow users to experience specific environments and practice safety procedures in real time, without the same hazardous risks.
Designing Your Product
The decision to implement a wearable technology program should be done cautiously and carefully.
Traditionally, it takes a significant amount of time because of the various factors involved. Understanding what specific data a company wants to collect is crucial and time consuming.
Once you know the area of technology, it is best to pilot a program and partner with potential sources of information, such as insurance carriers, customers, or industrial organizations.
Wearable technology’s ability to provide and interpret actionable data is revolutionizing the world of worker protection, especially in the context of management’s ability to promote workplace safety.
About the author: Mike Ziskin is the president of North Branford-based Field Safety Corporation.