Myth-Busting Wearables

Myth-Busting Wearables

Three common myths about putting wearables to work in your health and safety program.

It’s hard to believe that it was only a decade ago when Google Glass made an entry into the market. At that time, smart glasses creating a ubiquitous computer and wearable for the general public seemed futuristic. However, over the last few years, we’ve seen the use of wearables fast-tracked across both consumer and business use.

At the same time, the pandemic challenged assumptions about worker safety, health and well-being, and it helped intensify the focus corporations place on mitigating risk. As consumers get more comfortable wearing data-producing sensors in their personal lives, it has been easier to introduce them in an industrial setting in facilities like warehousing environments.

Consider that sensors (like an RFID tag) can be added to make condition monitoring possible in devices that previously didn’t have those capabilities—even a shirt. As we highlighted last year, Wesco deployed wearables in our warehouses as part of a 2021 pilot program with the goal of ensuring warehouse safety. By deploying small sensors the size of a keyfob on the back of employees’ shirts, we sought to reduce the risks associated with manual material handling, specifically spine hazards.

The sensor would vibrate and beep when hazardous movement was detected (in the same way newer cars have lane departure warnings) and stop when the movement was corrected. The goal was to help educate associates about posture, repetition and other factors that could harm them. While this example applies to warehouses, it is transferable to other industries where there is a risk of ergonomic injuries—from manufacturing to construction.

Not only do wearables make employees safer, but employers who invest in them as part of a comprehensive safety program demonstrate their commitment to a culture of safety. In an increasingly competitive hiring landscape, a workplace with a strong safety culture often sees direct links to employee engagement, retention, job satisfaction and a sense of community.

If you want to get started on implementing wearables in your workplace, here are three best practices to consider and some common misconceptions that often get in the way:

Myth 1: You Need All New Technology to Support a Wearables Project

Connected safety solutions are connected to another device, hence the name. This is typically enabled by Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Cellular or Satellite beacons. The connectivity enables the wearable device to capture data about an event or incident while providing the ability to notify and trigger action. Before you can get started, you’ll need to determine the networking and communications equipment needed to support a wearables environment.

One of the first things to think about is where your employees work—indoors, outdoors, or both? This will dictate the networking needs to support an environment with wearables, from a LAN to Bluetooth to RFID needs.

Connected safety solutions can vary in terms of their capabilities, use cases, install requirements and maintenance, but in general, they will require: hardware that needs to be calibrated or adjusted to the appropriate settings in order to achieve the desired objective, a software component which instructs a device on how to function and a data architecture that supports large volumes of structured and unstructured data (whether cloud or on-premise).

Most connected safety providers will be proponents of trialing or piloting the technology in an environment before engaging commercially with an end user. This is critical to understand adoption, connectivity and interoperability requirements. Plus, subscription and rental models allow for testing technologies at a more conducive rate than an outright purchase, offering more flexibility when building a program. You don’t need to have all the latest and greatest technology on hand—you just need to have the right elements to make wearables work.

Myth 2: Wearables Are Too Expensive for Your Company to Deploy

Many companies have the preconceived notion that wearables are financially out of reach. Here are three important considerations around the finances of wearables:

Over time, these technologies move from a CapEx model to an OpEx model, which can make these much more accessible to smaller businesses. Subscription type models and rental models also allow for lower initial cost and can remove barriers to entry for smaller businesses to be able to access these tools. Another key consideration is that while there is cost associated with access to these devices and their corresponding operational costs, their ability to increase your productivity and profitability can help you protect your bottom line in the long run.

In industries where the ergonomic injury risk is high, insurers may supplement the cost if it means decreasing risk and having programs that can be leveraged. Talk to your insurance and/or workers’ compensation partners to see if this applies to your business. This is akin to health insurance providers giving an annual credit for fitness activity. An up-front investment in wellness could mean fewer claims later.

And finally, consider starting small with a wearables pilot. This approach makes it easier to determine the success of such efforts and in turn helps support the business case for why these technologies are so vital to improving your overall safety environment and your bottom line.

Myth 3: Employers Are Using Wearables to Track More Than Just Health Data

Like any new initiative, employees can be fearful of the unknown. A common misconception is that employees wearing these devices will have their every move tracked. Educating staff on what data is being collected and what the wearables are in place to do will help them understand the benefits and drive adoption. It is also important for employees to understand that wearables don’t work in a vacuum. The future of safety is wearables working in concert with cameras, sensors and analytics. Educate your employees about how technology works and its benefits.

When educating your staff, point to the specific ways wearables can make them safer:

  • Wearable devices can provide immediate haptic feedback to the user based on unsafe motion that may cause injury.
  • Wearables can assist in the tracking and management of expensive equipment, such as fall protection devices, and provide notifications for when these items must be taken out of service or inspected. This ensures that faulty equipment is taken out of service.
  • Wearables can assist in unsafe exposures (such as gas detection) with a GPS identifier on the exact location of exposure or high decibel sound (noise) exposure.
  • Wearables can help identify an unhealthy state of an individual—i.e., dangerous heart rate or temperature levels. In these cases, employees can stop work and seek proper medical attention ahead of a major health complication.
  • Wearables can also support “Lone Worker’ safety. Fall detection and biometrics can be deployed to automatically alert teams about serious harm or danger to an employee, allowing for critical and often life-saving intervention.

Over time you can expand your wearables investment and incorporate additional technologies to further the breadth and depth of these capabilities. For example:

  • Video analytics can be used to analyze present trip hazards, spills, evaluate occupancy requirements and compliance with regulations, and assess ergonomics and PPE compliance (like employees wearing hard hats, for example).
  • Virtual reality can be used to deliver training and help employees avoid the conditions they would need to be exposed to during a live training. This ensures training can be done in a safe environment, but in an interactive fashion and the consistency of the training across locations and teams.

When it comes to technology in the workplace, innovations abound. By fundamentally changing how training, monitoring, reporting and even worker’s compensation is done, technology has a major role to play in improving workplace safety. Incorporating wearables into your organization’s safety efforts can be a great first step to capitalize on such advancements. By managing risk and mitigating safety concerns more effectively, businesses can take the lead on safeguarding their most valuable asset—their people. 

This article originally appeared in the August 1, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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