The following is a guest post from David Galbraith, Assistant Vice President, Risk Management Technical Lead for Amerisure Mutual Insurance Co.
Imagine a futuristic construction environment where employees are individually and automatically alerted to a hazardous situation prior to a would-be accident occurring. Workers' levels of fatigue are monitored and measured one by one and the worker is warned when he or she is too close to moving equipment, edges or dangerous areas. A system autonomously informs them and their supervisors if an immediate behavior change is required to prevent injury.
Well, this type of jobsite is more feasible than you might think.
Wearable technologies are making a significant splash in the market. As construction professionals, you might be asked to provide your opinion on this new technology, see a demonstration at a conference or participate in a pilot program. These requests will only increase as wearable technology becomes more prevalent in the construction sector.
Wearable technology presents the opportunity to improve safety, reduce injuries, improve efficiencies and enhance quality of life for construction workers.
While this technology is in the early stages of adoption, it shows tremendous promise for companies seeking to improve critical areas that drive efficiency, profitability and safety.
Defining wearable technology
An internet search for "wearable technology" returns thousands of definitions. The definitions apply to various industry sectors including healthcare, manufacturing and construction. In order to better understand how wearable technology can help contractors achieve their goals, though, let's settle on the definition Amerisure’s risk management team uses.
Construction wearables are devices, generally including a computer or advanced electronic device, worn on a construction worker’s body, clothing, or personal protective equipment, designed to collect and deliver data about the worker's environment, activities and biometric conditions. The technology has the ability to detect and warn the employee of the potential for injury, or reduce the seriousness of an injury when one occurs.
Objectives are achieved by providing portable and timely access to sensors, computers and electronics. The industry's emerging access to multifunctional technology and its ability to collect and analyze relevant data is revolutionizing worker protection.
How wearable technology can improve safety
Wearable technology will realize its objectives in numerous ways:
Devices can provide audible or vibration alarms to warn workers when they are too close to danger, such as moving equipment or a leading edge.
Devices may warn the individual of a hazardous physical movement — such as bending, twisting, reaching or lifting.
Devices may caution a worker when they are nearing exhaustion.
Devices can alleviate muscular and skeletal joint stress by assisting with lifting or working overhead.
In emergency situations, devices can alert emergency personnel and lead rescuers to the injured worker’s location.
Types of wearables
Predictions identify the widespread use of wearable technologies in construction over the next seven to 10 years. Currently, several technology and insurance companies are partnering with contractors to run pilot programs that test various types of wearables.
Typical types of wearables currently being piloted, or in limited use on construction sites include the following:
Visual wearables — devices that use optical aids in or on glasses, visors and hard hats to produce images for remote viewers and/or the wearer.
Visual wearables can bring value to training, troubleshooting, quality control and other situations where visual representation of a concept is needed. This type of wearable connects field employees to remote technical/supervisory employees, allowing both parties to view items simultaneously. Sharing visual information overlaid on actual work environments can enhance instructions, training and verification of practices and materials. Another benefit of this type of wearable is that field workers’ hands remain free to work while they are discussing solutions or working through an issue.
Tactile wearables — devices that work as an exoskeleton to increase the user’s strength and durability.
Tactile wearables are designed as exoskeletons that provide extra strength or endurance to the wearer. They also limit the force on the wearer’s muscular skeletal frame. Force is constantly monitored and the wearable responds to protect the wearer. The potential for strains, sprains and back injuries can be reduced, while simultaneously increasing a wearer’s capacity and endurance.
Sensing wearables — devices that can sense a worker’s biological, environmental and physical conditions. In addition to sensing conditions, the device analyzes data using edge computing and warns the employee of hazardous situations that can lead to an injury.
Sensors come in many forms including badges, actuators, biosensors, gyroscopes and more. They record and evaluate the wearer’s physical condition, location and environment. These wearables can sense location, impact, motion, temperature, vital signs and blood gases and evaluate and interpret the data to provide actionable information.
Sensors can also be deployed in numerous configurations that make wearing them simple, easy and unobtrusive. Methods of deployment can include attachments to hardhats, safety glasses or personal protective equipment. Clip-on wearables can be attached to shirts, vests and belts. Edge computers can be contained in wrist bands or clip-on devices. Wearables can also be embedded in the sole of shoes or worn as insoles.
Wearables not only have value for individual workers — they can enhance a company’s ability to manage safety experiences as well. Most wearables feed data to customizable dashboards, which allows a company's leadership to view and evaluate performance data associated with the entire organization, specific jobsites, job categories, job functions and employees. This data and subsequent analysis helps identify specific areas of exposures that have the potential to increase injuries. It also provides the opportunity to alter operations prior to accidents or injuries. In Amerisure’s ongoing pilot program, wearables decreased unsafe lifting behaviors by up to 38 percent.
The predictive analytics produced by wearable devices, combined with behavioral changes by employees and corrective measures by leadership, present new opportunities to significantly reduce construction worker injuries.
Implementing wearables in your organization
The data an organization desires should determine the wearable technology it chooses. For example, an organization concerned with the stress and strains of heavy overhead work may investigate exoskeleton wearables. Those concerned with material-handling exposures may utilize biomechanical wearables. When the location of employees and their physical health is critical, biometric wearables maybe more desirable.
One of the easiest ways to introduce wearables to an organization is to participate in a pilot program. Many insurance carriers offer pilots through affiliated agencies. Cost sharing, brand recognition and industry expertise are just a few of the benefits of participation.
The wearables wave is approaching quickly and gathering speed. As jobsite connectivity, data aggregation and edge computing evolve, wearables will become more prevalent. Every contractor should be actively investigating and evaluating how this wave can enhance his or her business.