The Widening World of Wearable Safety

The Widening World of Wearable Safety

What are safety wearables?

In 1975, a product came out that would forever change lives around the world, particularly regarding health and safety. This device was the calculator wristwatch and was innovative in that it was the first mainstream example of wearable technology. According to researchers, “the terms wearables, wearable devices, or also wearable technology refer to small electronic and mobile devices, or computers with wireless communications capability that are incorporated into gadgets, accessories, or clothes, which can be worn on the human body, or even invasive versions such as micro-chips or smart tattoos.”

These days, wearable technology is everywhere. From smart watches measuring physical activity and health to fall detection immediately identifying dangerous falls while at work and requesting help, wearable technology is benefitting both our personal and family, as well as our professional and work-related lives. 

What is Wearable Safety Technology? 

According to most sources, safety wearable technology is a device that will detect injury or harm to an employee, immediately alerting the proper emergency contacts to send help as fast as possible. 

Safety wearable technology is an unintrusive monitor that will request emergency help when the worker is injured and/or unconscious and unable to. Over the past decade in particular, there’s been an increase in safety wearable technologies and devices, some of which you may be familiar with such as: 

  • Smart phones 
  • Smart watches  
  • Smart clothing 
  • Smart headphones 
  • Health/fitness tracking devices 
  • VR headsets (safety training) 

The general practicality, functionality and applicability of the different technologies have made wearable technology ubiquitous in virtually every workplace, especially in healthcare, construction, law enforcement and manufacturing. 

Safety Benefits 

The OSH benefits of wearables in these industries and others are many and long-lasting, improving safety protocols you currently have in place, as well as helping you plan for the future safety of your team members. 

Faster Emergency Response 

The most important and obvious benefit of safety wearables is the prompt emergency alert and request for help when the worker is injured and physically unable to do so themselves. However, even if the worker is conscious, they may experience difficulty calling for help due to limb and head injuries and overall distress. 

Valuable Data Gathering 

Safety wearables collect valuable data that can be used to improve work conditions as well as proactively prevent accidents from occurring in the future. This information can provide invaluable OSHonsights such as injury trends as well as metrics that can help you anticipate safety challenges and issues down the road. They can identify areas of concern or weak points that could develop into something much more serious later on such as ergonomics and repetitive movements. 

Reduced Human Error 

Regardless of how many years of experience one might have or one's skill level, humans still make mistakes from time to time, and it is unfortunately inevitable. However, using technology like safety wearables, we can significantly reduce that amount of error, protecting more workers as a result.  

Increases Awareness and Engagement 

In the end, safety wearables are about increasing the worker and employer’s awareness of the work environment and the safety hazards and risks it presents. Work hazard assessments are integral to determining a safe work environment, but wearable technology can detect or anticipate hazards that we are unaware of or are invisible to the human eye.

Return on Investment 

Like any technology, there is a cost for safety wearables. However, this technology is becoming more and more cost-effective as well as increasingly smaller and more compact. When it comes to the safety as an investment and the well-being of your most important resource, being your employees, few expenses should be spared when considering technology that can protect them better and more efficiently. The potential savings with your people and your operations (not to mention OSH litigation), can be invaluable and well worth the financial costs. 

The Challenges of Safety Wearables 

While not many, there are some challenges when it comes to using wearable technology for work. The most common is that they are obviously dependent on technology which can fail or break from time to time. This includes battery life which can be an issue when working away from charging outlets for extended periods of time. 

Information Privacy 

Another challenge is that of privacy concerns and personal information security. The advent of wearable technology has also seen an increase in concern around how the personal data being collected by wearables is being used and who is able to access it. The good news is that this technology can be customized to prevent certain data gathering and location tracking during certain times. Additionally, agreements must be established beforehand that clearly communicate and outline how the data will be used, how it benefits the employee and employer, as well as any other relevant details such as disclosure. 

In 2017, NIOSH published “Wearable Sensors: An Ethical Framework for Decision-Making,” which, among a number of considerations, recommends that “the monitoring program’s policy, procedures and objectives are disclosed in clear and understandable terms,” also emphasizing that consent is “essential to [workplace] autonomy.”

There are also information privacy legal issues to consider, depending on where you work. However, no matter where you are, it is the employer’s moral responsibility to ensure that both the worker and their information is safe and secure. 

Connected Safety 

But despite these issues, safety wearables are a major part of the growing OSH movement towards connected and cloud-based safety because of its many benefits like real-time updates of the workers’ safety statuses and safety-compliance reporting.  

Wearable sensors can be, of course, connected via cellular networks and Wi-Fi signals. But when working outside of these networks and in remote areas, employees need to remain connected through other technology including GPS and satellite capabilities that allows the worker to remain engaged and in touch with their employer and/or safety monitor.

The Future of Wearable Safety Technology 

So, what does the future of wearable safety technology look like? Well, as just outlined, this technology is here to stay, playing more important roles in our overall health and safety.  

In addition to current devices like motion features and health trackers, employers will have access to smart rings that provide the most discreet notifications and communication, smart glasses relaying information through the worker’s eyes and view, advanced, discreet panic button devices and innovative smart clothing, some which allow a driver to easily control Bluetooth and phone calls, a far cry from the calculator watch in the 70s. Healthcare and employers will use smart sensors that will measure health metrics such as blood oxygen, sugar and pressure levels, as well as hydration and stress. 

Employee Support 

A Schall survey on the adoption of wearable sensors in the workplace found that employees were mostly supportive of using wearables with more than half of the respondents said they are “in favor of using wearable sensors to track OSH-related risk factors and relevant exposure metrics at their respective workplaces.”

Show the Benefits 

Regardless of how many staff support using wearables in the workplace, it is imperative that employers and managers communicate the benefits of this technology on their safety and well-being.  

Showing the benefits of new wearable devices can be accomplished through in-person or virtual training sessions, mock exercises with employees, as well as communicating relevant statistics and numbers that support the technology’s efficacy as an OSH safety measure. After a couple of months of using the device, make sure any benefits and improvements are relayed to staff, showing the impact of the new safety measures. 

Trusting and Transparent 

As outlined earlier, it is also incredibly important that employers are completely transparent about how any collected personal and professional data will be used, allowing the employee to voice their concerns and control what information is being documented and why. Particularly when sensitive information is involved, transparency, as well as staff engagement and updates, should be even more of a priority 

This is ultimately about keeping the employee connected so that help is readily available if needed. This is about keeping the employees involved in their safety so that it is always top of mind for everyone, resulting in a place you feel safe going to almost every day.  

 

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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