Interest in Wearable Tech Heats Up as the World Learns About the Dangers of Rising Temperatures
Can your company afford not to implement wearable technology as part of its HRI prevention program?
- By Cheryl Lynn Palmer
- Mar 01, 2022
Until now, the world at large wasn’t speculating on the occupational impact of climate change. However, organizations like the Department of Labor, OSHA, NIOSH as well as President Biden, by issuing new heat rules for worksites, are making the issue of dangerous heat impossible to ignore. Heat risk to workers and companies has caught the attention of many organizations and international media because it now kills more Americans than any other weather-related event, and it has been injuring workers quietly for many years.
As industrial companies and workers await OSHA heat standards, climate tech is proliferating many worksites, because it’s proving critical to predicting and preventing occupational heat injury and illness (HRI) as climate change causes an increased number of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and longer, more extreme heat waves.
Wearable technology can detect HRI symptoms that are hard to diagnose on work sites for several reasons:
Symptoms may not exist. Many people who experience HRI state that they “feel fine,” until they get dizzy, pass out and fall down.
Symptoms may be hard to identify. Fatigue and nausea may be misinterpreted as caused by food illness or too much alcohol the previous night. Temperament changes and lack of attention may be attributed to stress or a bad day. Unsteadiness and dropped items may just be simple mistakes. Muscle cramps may be mistaken for overdoing it the day before or a hard workout at the gym. Yet, each of these things are signs of HRI.
Workers may have been incorrectly trained. Research indicates many people believe that, if they are sweating, they are safe from HRI. Workers haven’t been trained to know that this is not true.
Symptoms may impede one’s own ability to self-identify HRI and react. Impaired judgment, disrupted cognitive function, lack of focus, inability to make decisions and poor comprehension could impede a worker’s ability to detect heat risk on the body.
Workplaces may not be watching for HRI. Heat assessment indexes and weather warning systems may not reflect variables specific to workplaces, such as metabolic heat production from work tasks, clothing layers, PPE, heat generated from machines and materials, etc., leaving workers unaware of their risks. Some assessment indexes may even use antiquated versions of heat indicators.
Core body temperature is traditionally hard to monitor. It involves unpleasant, invasive techniques such as a rectal thermometer or a gastrointestinal pill, which are not feasible on most work sites. Most people were taught to measure their temperature using a thermometer in the mouth, ear, or at the forehead, and to consider anything above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit as a sign of illness. This reading is known as the peripheral temperature. We weren’t taught that our bodies have a more consistently regulated temperature: Core Body Temperature (CBT).
CBT is the temperature around the body’s major organs. CBT has a slightly narrower range than peripheral temperature and is necessary to maintain metabolic rates, organ function and other life-sustaining properties. CBT impacts cognitive functions, motor control, and emotional regulation.
When a high CBT, workers reach an elevated risk for slips, trips, falls, dropping items, and making mistakes while operating machinery. CBT is the best indicator of HRI and NIOSH recommendations that no employee should work if their CBT is 101.3°F(38.5°C) or higher. Prevention is undoubtedly the best way to manage the effects of elevated CBT.
Despite the challenges of monitoring CBT, new heat standards will force employers to create HRI prevention and mitigation plans. Current practices typically associate heat risks with hot temperatures. However, research indicates workers can be at elevated risk of heat illness even at lower temperatures due to metabolic heat production, extra layers of clothing, use of required PPE, sun exposure, and radiant heat of workplace machinery.
Research also shows the number of days with higher EMS calls, higher ED visits and increased mortality extend beyond heat waves. Many individual factors also contribute to an individual’s ability to thermoregulate within various environmental contexts. They include existing health conditions, current medications, prior heat illnesses, acclimatization and certain lifestyle factors. Mitigating individual variables that contribute to HRI will require employers to consider individualized approaches to heat stress monitoring.
Some companies already use medical monitoring programs that may include taking an individual’s temperature, pulse-ox and/or blood pressure. However, these methods have limitations. They only provide information for a single moment in time and usually need a trigger such as an employee report or an accident. By that time, damage may have already been done and, in some cases, with permanent consequences. Wearable devices provide the ability to continuously monitor physiological indicators and empower employees to make safe decisions before illness or injury occurs.
Advances in wearable technology have caught the attention of many reputable organizations, causing them to consider how it can protect their most valuable assets from heat stress. Wearable physiological monitoring systems have been available for several years in three styles including torso-worn vests or belts, in-ear monitors and hip-worn loggers. More recently, several companies offer more compact, light-weight options that can be worn more conveniently around the arm.
Here are some things to consider when selecting a wearable device for your team:
Form factor describes the type of device and how it’s worn. Consider whether users can comfortably adapt to wearing the device. Ensure its location doesn’t interfere with work duties. Ensure work tasks do not disrupt how reliably the device functions.
Physiological input metrics refer to the data that is going into the algorithm. A growing body of research shows an increase in CBT may cause a rise in heart rate, but heart rate alone does not indicate a rising CBT. Heart rate can be elevated for numerous reasons including exertion, diet, emotions and medications. Additionally, peripheral temperature has been shown to be a poor indicator of CBT5. When selecting a wearable device for your workforce, ensure the algorithm used to predict CBT includes multiple factors such as heart rate, skin temperature, and medical history.
Acceptance and adaptability refer to how easily the device can be incorporated into a worker’s routine. Wearing a device should empower workers to take control of their own health and HRI risks. Ensure the technology is easy to put on, comfortable, does not interfere with work responsibilities, and is easy to interact with. Make sure workers can access their own data so they can make decisions pertinent to their individual well-being.
Device capabilities refer to what wearable technology actually does. Learn what sensors it has and the types of measurements it takes. Understand what data it provides to individual workers, supervisors, medical staff, and company leaders. Metrics that provide the most benefits include accurate CBT prediction, heart rate, activity levels, sweat rate and hydration monitoring. Consider whether some or all of this data is continuously monitored, who has access to view it, and its ability to prompt an alert or notification of impending danger.
Data access refers to the people who have access to the data. Data is only useful if it is both collected and accessible to those who need it. Ensure the company providing the technology uses proper data security measures. Consider who needs access to real-time data. Individuals need access to their information to make empowered decisions. Supervisors or medical staff need access to alerts or safety notifications when an individual is at risk so they can immediately identify anyone who may need medical intervention.
Return on investment is important to weigh the benefits against the costs of wearable technology. Conduct a Return on Investment (ROI) analysis to assess the value of implementing wearable technology in your organization. This should include the possibility of worker death because heat-related mortality is expected to increase by 70 percent to 100 percent with climate change. A single worker death costs an average of $1.2 million. Using the following assumptions, if you prevent two injuries/illnesses and one death within a five-year period, your wearable technology implementation will experience an ROI of 298 percent. The key question is: can your company afford not to implement wearable technology as part of its HRI prevention program?
This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.