A guide to wearable tech in EHS

You’ll agree that wearable safety technology for EHS is everywhere these days.

Don’t know where to start? Don't worry. We discovered which wearables are impacting the EHS industry today, and why.

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This article provides a background of wearable tech and where the market is headed. Then, it looks at the best practices and limitations of using wearable safety technology for EHS purposes.

Ready? Let’s go.

What is wearable technology?

First of all, let’s clarify the definition of wearable safety technology. As you probably guessed – wearable technology is technology you wear.

But, there’s more to it than that.

Some wearable tech connects to the internet and tracks personal data. In other words, fitness trackers, smartwatches and body cameras all fall under wearable technology.

It is a massively growing industry, too. For instance, worldwide sales are predicted to double. By 2022, the market will be worth between US$27 billion and US$60 billion – depending who you ask. Phew!

Smartwatch sales storm into the lead, with an estimated 85 million sold in 2018. On the other hand, fitness trackers sales will fall in the next four years.

Incredibly, the pedometer - a key component of fitness trackers - is the first example of wearable technology, invented around 500 years ago.

Who invented it, you ask? That’s where it gets hazy. There’s multiple possibilities – including Leonardo da Vinci - dating from as far back as 1674. But, the pedometer’s official patent was awarded in 1924.

Currently, wearables are associated with personal use. However, they are quickly becoming incorporated in the world of work, particularly for health and safety purposes.

What are the future trends?

The line between the two most popular wearables - smartwatches and fitness trackers – is increasingly blurred.

As technology develops, so do smartwatch features. Now, smartwatches cleverly link smartphone and fitness capabilities, disqualifying the need for two devices. So, alongside social media, calls and emails, smartwatches can track heartrate, calories and activity.

Unsurprisingly, Apple lead the smartwatch market. In 2018, 45 million smartwatches were shipped in total; half of them by Apple.
Smart watches can be used as wearable safety technology.

However, the rise of wearable tech is evident in workplaces. Some employers welcome wearables with open arms.

Here's the kicker:

If you're worried about the robots taking your job, then think again.

Deloitte Insights argue against seeing technology as a job threat. Instead, the thought leaders reckon technology enhances job roles and workers' capabilities.

For example, wearable technology boosts productivity, increases safety and even improves vision and hearing.

Moreover, wearables can advance safety in industries like automotive, chemicals, and oil and gas.

However, in non-industrial environments, like finance, retail and travel, wearables prove to increase productivity.

Furthermore, wearable tech is adopting to the workplace market. Devices are getting cheaper, lighter and smaller - all encouraging employer investments.

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Using wearable safety tech for EHS

Okay, I know why you’re here:

You want to know how wearable tech is used for safety purposes, right?

Well, let’s get to it.

Wearables have flooded the technology market over the past 15 years. Now, vendors are meeting the demand for workplace safety technology.

For example, a 2018 Verdantix report found that 58% respondents regard industrial wearables significant to their upcoming operational risk management initiatives. To clarify, industrial wearables are wearable tech used in industrial settings to improve productivity, safety and efficiency.

Industrial wearables' primary functions:

  • Track worker location
  • Oversee vital signs and environmental risks
  • Mitigate risks by issuing information remotely
  • Reduce exposure to musculoskeletal injuries
  • Improve staff training

So, which function uses which wearable tech? And most importantly, do they work?

Location tracking

Clips, equipment tags and worksite sensors can all detect location, and it comes with advantages.

For example, one construction company tracking worker location consequently responded to worker falls and injuries at a 40% faster rate.

Bill Caldwell, Senior Safety Specialist at chemical company Tronox, said:

"Determining a worker's location during a fire or chemical release evacuation would be very valuable. Getting help to someone would certainly increase survival. Importantly, it would also decrease rescuers sent in to rescue a missing person. At our facility, if we can’t account for someone because they have not made it to a muster point, we have to send rescuers in to conduct a search. That could result in putting rescuers in harm’s way looking for a person that is actually in a safe location."

Monitoring vital signs and environmental risks

A range of wearables monitor workers’ vital signs: smartglasses detecting sleepiness, and smart clothing monitoring heart rate variability and breathing volume.

A study by the American Society of Safety Professionals developed a framework for monitoring worker fatigue using wearables. As a result, employers had almost real-time intuition to worker fatigue and productivity.

What’s more, wearables can identify natural gas and high-risk temperatures.

Caldwell said:

"Another issue for us is monitoring employee exposure to heat stress. Some of our jobs require the wearing of an impermeable acid suit and respirator in the Mississippi summer time when temperatures can reach 100°F (38 °C). We could use a device that would monitor an employee’s heart rate and body temperature and alert them to take breaks and cool off."

Information issued remotely

Field staff often require information when out on location. That’s where wearables come into play.

For example, a voice activated and hands-free wearable gives staff quick and easy access to any documentation and information they need.

Exoskeletons

Workers exposed to repetitive heavy lifting, difficult working environments and working positions risk developing musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). In the UK between 2017 and 2018, 6.6 million working days were lost to work-related MSDs.

However, exoskeletons assist with heavy lifting, and can even monitor fatigue. Like all wearables, exoskeletons range hugely, from full-body armor to discreet designs.

One example is The Chairless Chair, utilized by factory floor workers. Designed to attach behind workers legs and back, it provides support whenever the user sits or crouches. Best of all, workers can also stand and walk about freely with the exoskeleton still attached.

Safety Training

Last but not least, wearables are used for safety training. Virtual reality headsets allow users to experience a fictional environment and practice safety procedures.

Virtual reality headsets can complement wearable safety technology.

If you’re looking to save the hassle of bringing in an in-person trainer for staff, the answer lies in VR. Plus, it means workers can complete safety practice without the real-life risk working at a height or using dangerous tools.

Limitations

As we’ve seen, wearables have a wealth of benefits.

But, they also have their downfalls. Let’s look at the two most prominent.

Privacy

With technology tracking your every move, privacy concerns are understandable. One study found that 67% of respondents worried about ‘big brother’ surveillance by employers.

Transparency can combat this. Be clear with staff about what data the wearables track, and explain the reasons behind their introduction to the workplace.

The previously mentioned ASSP study recommends granting staff the opportunity not to share data. In fact, they also recommend not monitoring productivity at all, just safety and wellness.

Cost

Bringing in company-wide wearables will involve a shake-up of your finances.

Wearable tech varies wildly in price. A simple fitness tracker has a US$40 starting price, but smartglasses can reach US $3,000 a pair.

However, as we know, a work-related injury is very expensive. One report found US employers spending US$1 billion each week on work-related injuries and illnesses.

In this sense, using wearables to lower injuries and - in the long run – costs might be the right choice.

Conclusion

As with anything, wearables come with their disadvantages. However, as the market moves towards catering for enterprises, we can only expect devices to get better, and cheaper.

So far, we've seen wearables have a largely positive impact on worker health and safety. Will your company be next? Download our Quick Guide to Wearable Tech infographic for all the essential info.

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A University of the West of Scotland graduate with a BA in Journalism, Holly joined the marketing department in 2018 and brings a wide range of experience to the team. Outside of business, Holly enjoys cycling, cooking and yoga. As the Digital Marketing Executive, Holly coordinates Pro-Sapien's social outreach and blog content, and can be reached at holly.callender@pro-sapien.com.