Andrew Ronchi, CEO dorsaVi Ltd, on what wearable technology really means to OSH
Ahead of DorsaVi’s Wearable technology in the workplace event SHP talks to Dr Andrew Ronchi about how wearable technology can help us create safer environments and a healthier workforce.
What is wearable technology?
Wearable technology is changing the way we work, think, move, sleep and interact with each other. It is usually defined as a device that is worn on the body or attached to clothing that captures data about you or your environment. It may feed data back to the user, to someone else (e.g., a doctor), or another device. Once strictly the domain of professional athletes and sports physiotherapists, wearable tech is now being used by companies to help them make data-driven decisions every day.
How does wearable technology make the user safer?
Wearable technology is now being used in workplaces around the world to change the way risk is assessed and enabling us to take great strides forward promoting and improving health and safety outcomes.
Proximity sensors alert workers when they are too close to a vehicle or other equipment that could cause serious injury; smart helmets can now monitor pressure, track location, and feedback if circuits about to be worked on are live; and badge sensors can monitor exposure to environmental pollutants. These are just a few examples of how technology is helping us create safer workplaces, but can they also help us create a healthier workforce?
Wearable sensor technology is now so sophisticated that it can record every step, bend, twist and turn, while workers are on task, and instantly report back where poor movement is placing workers at risk of injury. We know that work-related musculoskeletal injuries make up over a third of all work related illness in the UK, and are an enormous burden for both the employee and employer, and this new data can make a significant impact on reduce the risk of WRMSD in all environments.
What are the benefits of wearable technology over a more conventional system?
The ability to collect objective data over longer periods, and in real environments, provides genuinely new insights for companies who want to improve their work practices and work environments. Ergonomic risk assessments are now possible in all workplaces, whether it’s up a wind turbine, down a mine, or anywhere in between.
Continuous and real time monitoring also enables companies to move from managing to LAG indictors, to affecting change based on LEAD indicators. All too often we concentrate on measuring results, outputs and outcomes, why? Because they are easy to measure and they are accurate. If we want to know how many accidents have occurred on the factory floor, we consult our accident log. These LAG measures are essential for charting progress, but can mean we are managing to historic data that may not reflect the current workplace risks today. Use of technology allows live feedback and up to the minute data, which in turn means we can take a proactive approach and implement predictive LEAD indictors. We can know what is happening in the here and now, and act on it.
Looking at companies that have already introduced this technology, how is it working in practice and are people actually safer?
A U.S. study conducted in 2012 found bricklaying to be associated with multiple risks including energetic load (exceeding 25 percent heart rate reserve), load on the lower back (exceeding the NIOSH threshold value of 3.4 kN), repetitive force exertions of the upper extremities, frequent bending with trunk flexion exceeding 60 degrees and working with the arms more than 60 degrees elevated.
Lower back pain, strain and injury might be typical for bricklayers and other construction workers, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Most organsations know the importance of effective occupational health and safety practices, yet many struggle to prove the efficacy of one system over another. This is where wearable technology can help.
One global construction company, VINCI Construction UK, employed wearable sensors on its bricklayers to collect objective data, ultimately reducing the risk of lower back injury and increasing productivity and efficiency. The results allowed the company to make an informed business decision based on real data rather than intuition:
- time spent with back bent over 20 degrees reduced by up to 85 percent;
- 84 percent reduction in lower back muscle activation;
- repetition of higher risk movements reduced by up to 70 percent; and
- 17 percent increase in productivity, measured in bricks per minute.
What is the future of wearable technology in the workplace?
Unsafe work environments cost companies now and later, driving up insurance costs and hurting productivity. Injuries also impact the lives of employees, reduce overall morale and impact employee retention.
The latest innovations in wearable technology are helping businesses to proactively manage health and safety. Tech may be used to verify new methods of working as safer and more efficient; to understand exposure levels to harmful pollutants; to know where and how lone workers are in real time. The potential applications are enormous, and we have only just started on this journey. Future innovations will likely see virtual reality as a standard training tool, and sensors embedded in clothes and PPE to track, assist, and feedback worker health and safety metrics day in, day out. Once objective, accurate and up-to-date data is embedded into our safety management systems, I believe we will see a step change in injury rates (for the better!), safety culture, productivity.
Hear more from experts Professor Neil Mansfield (Imperial College), Dr Miranda Loh (IOM) and Dr Andrew Ronchi (dorsaVi) on 23rd February as they discuss the use of wearable technology in the workplace and how it can help us create safer environments and a healthier workforce. Specific focus on the measurement of vibration, environmental exposure monitoring, and reducing risk of WRMSDs.