Will It Work? Wearable Technology for Workers

Since the launch of the Apple Watch in 2015, consumers have gotten used to passively tracking a seemingly bottomless amount of data points about their bodies. Heart rate, respiration, posture, time spent sitting, time spent on the phone, time spent exercising, location, sleep quality—even blood oxygen level!

There hasn’t been much definitive study of how the Internet of Things (IoT) has affected people’s health, but some evidence suggests that tracking our vitals has inspired some people to be more conscious about their habits. This, in turn, has made some people more physically active and healthier overall. But in 2024, investors and device-makers hope to transform the industrial worksite with the next generation of wearable technology.

Welcome to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

What Is Wearable Tech for Industrial Jobs?

In the context of IIoT, “wearable tech” includes more than watches or glasses. The most elaborate and high-powered wearables would include exoskeletons, which would grant workers improved strength, stability, and mobility. Most importantly, it would prevent injuries caused by strain and heavy lifting.

On the other end of the spectrum are implanted sensors, which would be permanently attached to the wearer. Implants, one industry writer imagines, could be used to monitor vitals for workers with high-risk conditions such as asthma or seizure disorders. Workers with sleep apnea might be forewarned if they’ve had a poor night’s sleep, which could prevent accidents due to fatigue.

Of course, it’d be perfectly natural for workers to be hesitant to receive a permanent implant paid for by their employer. The more common wearables in the workplace will be things like shoes that measure balance, gait, and posture, or head-mounted displays that offer workers a wealth of real-time data while doing high-stakes work.

Known (& Speculative) Benefits of Wearable Technology

Given that Fitbits and Apple Watches were consumer novelties less than a decade ago, there’s not a whole lot of information about wearable technology’s benefits for the workplace. At least one hospitality technology company cited an actuarial report from insurance consultancy firm Perr&Knight. Their data on hotel and motel workers demonstrated how wearables reduced injury frequency by 50 to 60% and reduced lost workdays by 72%—a massive shift. The direct source for this data came from the company whose devices were the subject of this study.

Another study cited by multiple sources allegedly published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research supposedly suggests wearable tech generates healthcare savings of $500 to $1,000 per employee. However, a study suggesting such figures was not linked in these sources, and as of this writing such a study cannot be found on JMIR’s website.

So, suffice it to say that verifiable information on the benefits of industrial wearable technology is somewhat hard to separate from the marketing and hype.

But the speculative benefits are plausible. One Australian device maker claims its devices can detect what tools a worker is using based on the frequency and intensity of vibrations. They also claim to prevent workplace fall accidents by detecting the wearer’s balance and location. An outlet for the oil-and-gas industry believes real-time data monitoring could support life-saving interventions during emergencies and disasters in remote areas.

Other benefits of safety-oriented IIoT in the oil-and-gas industry, according to device makers, include:

  • Location tracking for search-and-rescue
  • Virtual geofencing to prevent wandering into unsafe areas
  • Prevent fatigue through monitoring real-time work and rest hours
  • Vitals monitoring for cardiac events, fatigue, or heat exposure
  • Alerts when unsafe behavior or location is detected
  • Blood oxygen monitoring in areas with poor ventilation
  • Safety optimization through real-time data gathering

A Critical Error at the Heart of IIoT

Theoretically, this sort of device would benefit the safety of workers in all sorts of industries, from mining and trucking to offshore drilling and commercial shipping. However, aside from the challenge of getting oil-and-gas workers to accept a monitoring device owned by their employers, there’s a critical error in the way companies view accidents that will affect how these devices are supposed to work.

Magellan X, an Environmental Health and Safety technology company, recently published a whitepaper on IIoT written by Captain Daniel Alcantara, their Chief Solutions Delivery Officer. The whitepaper was written to promote Sol-X, a “connected worker platform that improves safety operations.”

Anyway, in the paper, Captain Alcantara claims that unsafe worker behavior is the “underlying cause” of work injuries. Thus, early detection of such behavior will prevent accidents. The entire paper flows from that premise: “The unsafe behavior of workers is one of the underlying causes of worksite accidents.” With all due respect to Captain Alcantara, an ‘underlying’ cause would mean workers are behaving unsafely of their own volition, independent of the safety policies put forward by employers.

But in our experience investigating some of the largest and most devastating work accidents on earth, workers don’t act unsafely on a whim. They’re forced to act unsafely when the company’s interests contradict their safety policies. We see this all the time in refineries, chemical plants, offshore rigs, and more. If it’s in the company’s interest to hire minimal staff, put workers on long shifts where fatigue is more likely to develop, or reward workers for higher output, then the natural outcome of those things will be fatigue, preventable mistakes, and risky behavior.

While monitoring for search-and-rescue or rapid medical intervention provides workers with immediate benefits, monitoring their behavior to check for “unsafe habits” doesn’t address the real issue: for management and shareholders, workplace safety is secondary to quarterly growth.

To really transform workplace safety, you don’t need millions of dollars in tracking equipment and software. All you need to do is make management’s bonuses contingent on zero site accidents.

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