Intro to Wearable Sensors for Safety
Wearable sensors are making inroads into safety assessment and management. Recent research funded by the American Society of Safety Professionals found that 54% of safety pros were in favor of using wearables to track safety and health risk factors. What are some of the promising uses for this emerging technology, and some of the concerns of that resistant 46%?
Wearable sensors have been in the workplace for several years now, in such forms as fitness trackers for wellness challenges. Early safety-related sensors were simple, such as “firefighter down” motion sensors (Personal Alert Safety Systems) that sound a loud alarm on the device. Early devices capable of data storage required a bulky external storage device.
As electronics have shrunk and reliable wireless networks have become widespread, the wearables market has exploded. Applications for safety have also proliferated. Some examples include:
Fatigue Monitors – Fatigue is one of the leading causes of injuries and illnesses. It decreases situational awareness and increases the likelihood of errors. Lack of sleep also prevents cumulative trauma like strains from healing before the next work day. Fatigue monitors track movement patterns of body parts such as the head or eyes, to alert the employee and supervisor when fatigue is increasing.
Force and Motion Tracking – Musculoskeletal strains are the leading type of injury in most industries. Various formulas and computer models are available to evaluate the hazard level of tasks. But collecting input data for numerous tasks and numerous employees can be challenging. Wearables can quickly measure all three of the critical ergonomic risk factors – force using surface electromyography (muscle sensors), and posture and repetition using miniature gyroscopes and accelerometers.
Location Tracking – It is critical to know the location of employees who are in hazardous environments. For instance, location trackers can supplement and automate Personnel Accountability Systems for emergency responders. They can confirm evacuation of employees from large facilities, and help locate them if rescue is needed. Wearable proximity sensors can help operators of forklifts and other equipment keep away from other employees, and warn the employees to stay away from the equipment.
Air and Noise Testing – Devices such as noise dosimeters, toxic gas detectors and personal particle counters can now be monitored real-time through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, rather than waiting until the end of the shift to download exposure data. This allows for immediate response to hazardous or deteriorating conditions. This can be especially critical for chemicals that cannot be detected through smell, such as carbon monoxide or hydrogen sulfide. Although the device can sound an onboard alarm for the employee, remote monitoring can help ensure that an appropriate response or rescue is initiated.
Despite the promise of wearables, many safety professionals have concerns with their use in the workplace. Here are the top five concerns expressed by respondents in the survey funded by ASSP:
Privacy – Use of employee ID numbers rather than names will keep names out of the database that could be accessed by the vendor. But the employer will be able to match those numbers with a name, so there must be privacy and security controls in place to ensure the data will not be misused.
Employee Acceptance – Details were not provided as to why respondents felt employees might not accept the use of wearables. This may overlap with other concerns on the list, such as privacy and comfort. Other concerns may be applicable to any type of employee observation, and not specifically to wearables. For instance, one respondent stated employees might “feel their jobs are threatened by not moving correctly or fast enough”. Trust is the key to overcoming this concern. As with all programs, focus on rewarding the positive behaviors identified by the wearables rather than on disciplining the negative.
Sensor Durability – This should improve over time. Some of the early devices have been proven in harsh environments such as firefighting and offshore drilling.
Cost-Benefit – This should also improve over time, as device costs come down and safety applications continue to grow.
Comfort/Obtrusiveness/Distraction – Again, this should improve over time as device size and weight continues to shrink. When wearables are being used to characterize the hazards of a job rather than to perform ongoing monitoring, discontinue their use when enough data has been collected.
The ASSP-funded report on wearables focuses on fatigue monitoring, but includes many findings applicable to all wearables. Click here to review the full report.