Risk Managers’ Forum
By Sara Naus, CSRM
THE ROLE OF WEARABLES IN LOSS PREVENTION
New technologies are changing how employers protect workers and gather valuable workplace data
When we think of personal protective equipment (PPE) we think of anti-slip shoes, goggles, gloves, earmuffs or plugs, and other standard—and many times mandatory—protective equipment. The idea behind providing PPE to workers is to prevent and/or lessen the impact of occupational injuries and reduce claims that might result in a loss.
Regardless of the industry, all formal safety and accident prevention programs include the purchase and use of PPE and ergonomic products for employees to protect themselves while in the course and scope of their employment. PPE is an important part of a safety program, but it goes hand in hand with appropriate and continuing training.
The advances in smart wearables and sophisticated [personal protective equipment] may be part of a revolution in safety for what have always been jobs that involve risk.
But new technologies are changing the way PPE will contribute to not just protecting workers but also gathering valuable data. Such advances will have a long-term impact on loss prevention efforts and will change the way safety managers investigate accidents that occur in the workplace.
Wearables like Fitbit, an activity tracker, or the Apple Watch, a computing device that collects biometric information at rest and during exercise, are already commonplace. In fact, the convenience and popularity of wearables have recast the way we view being connected and even may have changed our tolerance for being monitored.
The new generation of wearables takes monitoring to a whole new level, with their tiny microprocessors, wireless communication, and compact batteries, equipped with sophisticated sensory and scanning features that provide biofeedback, data recording, and tracking. Many companies are using wearables to address workplace safety and other risk issues through PPE.
Because of their ability to measure and monitor, these wearables show promise in preventing injuries and other exposures to loss. Technology is embedded into traditional work clothing and PPE that would normally be found on a construction or manufacturing site—items like hard hats, safety glasses, gloves, vests, and work boots. Kitted out with biometrics and environmental sensors, GPS and location trackers, Wi-Fi, voltage detectors, and other sensors, this specialized clothing can record data about workers’ movements, repetitive motions, and posture when lifting, and can record any falls or other accidents.
According to the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA), 20% of all work-related fatalities and injuries in the United States happen on construction sites. Manufacturers of wearable devices are aware of those statistics and have developed breakthrough solutions for construction-related safety. Sensor-based and network-connected wearable technology allows for real-time, on-the-job oversight of worker movements and practices, as well as timely detection of environmental hazards. This technology improves response time and alert capabilities and also allows for the collection of data on overall job-site safety conditions.
In the case of warehouse or other indoor applications, wearables allow for restrictions to be placed on hazardous areas, certain inventory, or machinery by using tagging and geo-fencing. Lights and alarms are set off if a worker strays into an area or near a machine that is off limits. Inventory and tools also can be monitored and managed with this type of technology.
Being hit by or crashing into an object is a common cause of a workplace accident—it is, in fact, one of the top four leading causes of death on a job site—and 75% of collisions involve large machinery or heavy equipment. Proximity warning and alert technology embedded in wearables can potentially save lives and provide important feedback from close calls. The development of wearables to protect people from injury is extending to other sectors like healthcare centers and educational institutions.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been studying the usefulness of wearable tech in high-risk environments for over a decade and a half. Four general areas that wearables can monitor are subject to ongoing study: physiological, where a worker’s body temperature, vital signs, and fatigue level are checked; environmental, in which the environment around the worker is analyzed; proximity, where GPS and other kinds of sensors are used to track locations of workers and nearness to hazards; and ergonomics, which uses exoskeleton suits that ensure workers are lifting or bending correctly to reduce injury.
Technology behind the wearables—(RTLS and RFID)
Two basic types of tracking and locating systems are being used currently to develop wearable tech for workplace safety. One is called a Real-Time Location System (RTLS) and the other is known as Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID). Although combinations of technologies may be used with these, RTLS and RFID are the two major categories being developed.
Real-Time Location System (RTLS): A real-time location system (RTLS) detects the current location of a target, usually within a limited area, since it is a wireless local positioning system and does not typically incorporate GPS, although it can be combined with it.
The target may be a person or items, such as equipment or tools. RTLS can be embedded in any wearable like a hard hat or a safety vest. Most RTLS systems have tags with wireless nodes that emit signals (beacons) and readers to receive those signals. RTLS is based on wireless technologies, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and ultra-wideband and can be combined with radio frequency, infrared, and ultrasound technologies.
RTLS technology is not new. But it is now being deployed more and more in places like schools, where its uses vary from managing attendance and visitor management to coordinating an emergency response. No more calling out names in the morning to ensure that all students are in class; RTLS tech can automatically alert the attendance app the moment each student enters the room.
Safety of students and staff at a school is paramount for risk managers and administrators. An effective visitor management system guarantees the integrity of the instructional program. Placing a tag on visitors provides a way to monitor their movements and limit access to unauthorized areas of the building. The location on a large campus of custodial or other staff can be accounted for at all times of the day.
RTLS can also be of help during crisis situations. Emergency response personnel can use this tool to locate people inside a building. This could aid in rescue operations or in ensuring that all occupants have been evacuated from a building that is at risk.
Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID): RFID uses radio waves to read and capture information embedded in a tag attached to an object. A tag can be read from up to several feet away and does not need to be in direct line of sight of the reader (a two-way radio transmitter/receiver) to be tracked.
The RFID device on the tag has two parts: a microchip that stores and processes information and an antenna to receive and transmit a signal. The tag also has a specific code for the object or person. The tag responds to a signal from the reader with the information it has stored. The reader will then transmit the data to an RFID computer program where it is recorded and analyzed.
A new work boot is being engineer-ed that is embedded with RFID locator software and GPS tracking that is directly connected to the Cloud. This unusual “smart” boot also has energy chargers that are powered simply by walking.
The boots can monitor and analyze health status and environmental factors, be used as communicators, and provide alarms in case of falls or other injuries. Not surprisingly, these boots are being developed in concert with the U.S. military to be used as part of protective gear for soldiers, as well as for construction workers.
Monitoring fatigue and more
Another safety device produced by a major equipment maker is a wearable band that monitors a worker’s fatigue levels while operating large machinery.
The information is tracked across rest and activity periods and is then analyzed to help predict and manage an individual’s risk for drowsiness and overall lack of alertness. Fatigue in the operation of trucks and other large equipment is a major cause of accidents on construction and manufacturing sites.
More and more there is a strong outcry to make construction and manufacturing job sites safer for workers. But there exists a need to balance accountability, safety and privacy.
The advances in smart wearables and sophisticated PPE may be part of a revolution in safety for what have always been jobs that involve risk. Minimizing risk and reducing loss are dear to every risk manager’s heart. However, for it to fully work, companies must ensure that employees buy in to the advantages of smart safety gear, ergonomic analytics, and the accompanying data tracking.
All kinds of organizations, from healthcare and educational institutions to construction and large manufacturing companies, are focused on the very real cost saving that can come from the risk minimization and loss control offered by wearables. Businesses and their employees will appreciate the increased speed of a workers comp claim being processed with all the additional data gleaned from smart PPE that can be used to substantiate a submission.
Some workers may balk at the increased accountability with wearable monitoring, but most will appreciate the health and safety benefits of technically enhanced PPE.
Sara Naus, CSRM, is academic director for the Certified School Risk Manager (CSRM) program at The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research.