Wearable technology in the workplace – an invasion of privacy or boost for safety and wellbeing?
There was a time when work clothes were just clothes. They were designed to keep you warm and to keep you safe, and no more.
Back in the old days, the closest most of us get to wearable to technology was a flame-proof jacket or steel toecaps in our “wellington boots”. But as smart devices play an ever-greater part in all aspects of our lives, wearable technology is rapidly becoming the norm for many of us.
In recent weeks, SHP has reported on several new developments in this field, including the roll-out of body cameras to recycling staff in Oxfordshire and a recent study, undertaken by YouGov for healthcare provider AXA, also showed 45% of the British workforce would be comfortable sharing information with wearable devices, when it assists with employee-related health and wellbeing strategies.
Although 69% of the workers surveyed who were not comfortable sharing information said they were worried about workplace discrimination as a result of the device – and did not like firms knowing details of their lifestyle.
Analyst James Moar from Juniper Research, which monitors the wearable technology sector, says he believes there are “tens of millions of devices” now being used across Europe.
“However, most of these will be consumer devices like smartwatches and fitness bands,’ Mr Moar tells SHPonline.
“Business users will account for a far higher proportion of revenues than units, as they will be using higher value devices, such as smart glasses and cellular smartwatches, while the majority of consumer spending will be directed towards relatively cheaper fitness wearables.”
Enthusiasm in certain sectors
In terms of wearable technology for the workplace, Mr Moar says there is a lot of enthusiasm already in the oil and gas, field services, auto and aerospace manufacturing, logistics and healthcare sectors.
“These are typically heads-up display wearables, with smart watches and similar wrist devices being used more sparingly according to the needs of each business.
“The biggest use case for the technology in any industry is the ability to take information from one place and provide it, hands-free, to another. This typically means smart glasses, which can relay eye-view video footage from the wearer to another location, as well as display information in front of a worker as required.”
Smart glasses in action
One of the most popular examples of a ‘smart glasses system is AMA Xpert Eye, which uses smart glasses to allow workers in the field to video conference with experts in a variety of fields.
The company’s managing director, Etienne Guillemot says the idea of using smart glasses in this way first came from a surgeon.
“He wanted to train Japanese surgeons for a new shoulder surgery technique, which was not validated in Japan until recently,” he explains.
“He had to go two or three times a year to Japan and train surgeons in this technique. He thought the Google Glass could help do this, without having to go there.
“Today we focus on software for smart glasses, enabling remote assistance and collaboration. The idea is for collaboration between two persons – one in the field and another elsewhere. A nurse or a technician can use the glasses to call a doctor or an expert in any subject to do their task.
‘The start of something huge’
“Our applications are not focussed on safety, but I think it’s an important side effect for many of our clients. For example, whenever you have an expert you will not press the wrong buttons. There are less things to calculate, so you can concentrate on what you are doing in the present.”
“I think at the moment, smart glasses in the workplace are a bit like mobile phones about 30 years ago,” adds Mr Guillemot. “We need to get the word out there and explain to people that these technologies already exist. Between 60 to 70% of our clients say it would be hard to go back to process they had before they had before the glasses, because they are saving a lot of time and money.
“I think we are at the start of something that will be huge and used in a lot of sectors. When people ask me what is our target market, it’s a little bit hard to answer. “
Emergency support for NHS workers
Another of the smart devices on the market to help protect lone workers is the SoloProtect ID badge, which can be used to send a discreet audio call to a dedicated call centre in case of an emergency.
SoloProtect’s senior marketing manager, Rob Harris said the idea for the device came from his boss, Craig Swallow, who himself has a background in telecommunications.
“He had at least one family member who worked in the NHS and was aware of lone-worker risk, and how people in those services are susceptible to verbal abuse and aggression,” he explains.
“He just had a bit of a lightbulb moment that was based on an understanding that phones do not work in a verbal aggression scenario. The last thing you can do is reach for a phone, because of how overt an action it is.”
The SoloProtect ID badge was quickly adopted by various public sector agencies, which often send workers out on their own.
“They have many people who are community-based or going into people’s homes,” says Mr Harris.
Lone worker support in the private sector
“But in the last five years, we’ve also seen a shift towards the private sector waking up. Retailers are really interested in this technology, along with utilities and transport and logistics.
“There are times when the economics dictate that a job has to be a lone-working role,” he adds. “Everyone understands that these days. Companies get peace of mind that they are protecting their staff by using devices like this.
“They are contributing to their duty of care and hopefully mitigating business risk, because the fines are so huge now.
“I think as long as employers are willing to adopt the technology, then you will continue to see innovation. People are demanding more from their technology, and I think lone-worker protection is an area where there perhaps has not been enough innovation in the last couple of years, but that will change.”
Discreet, wearable check-in tool
Another product designed to help lone-workers is the StaySafe Business smart phone app and wristband, which can be used as a discreet panic button or check-in tool.
StaySafe’s chief executive, Don Cameron, tells SHPonline his device is now live in 35 countries across the world and they have several big name clients, including Kier, Siemens and Skanska.
“The app originated because of a guy who had a problem,” recalls Mr Cameron. “He had a survey business, which was traditionally a two-man operation.
“You had the professional who held the optical device and normally a trainee, who would run round, holding the pole at the other end. But then they introduced laser scanners and, essentially you stick the scanner in one spot and professional runs round with the equivalent of a pole.
“It automatically does the scan 10 times faster, more accurately and at a fraction of the price.”
And more importantly, it also requires just one person to be in the field.
“His challenge was that he had a bunch of guys in the field, anywhere from a construction site to a quarry, who were lone-working and carrying £20-30,000 lasers over their shoulders.”
A bright future
Mr Cameron says the StaySafe app works well in areas where there is low or even no mobile phone signal.
“It will operate in some cases when you have no signal at all, because it will trigger alarms,” he adds.
And he adds he sees a bright future for smart and wearable technologies in the workplace.
“I was speaking to one of our clients today and they are using smart tech to check how tired people are when they come to work, because it can have a direct impact on accident levels.
“They essentially have a Fitbit, which monitors sleep patterns and if somebody has got particularly bad sleep patterns, it will advise people not to operate machinery the day after. I think we will see a lot of more of that. There’s a lot more to come in terms of wearables.”