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The Role of Wearable Technology in Risk Reduction

With three million nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses occurring in 2014 alone, which is a $250 billion problem in the United States, the importance of risk reduction and the implementation of mitigation strategies is recognized in any industry.

Of course, this is particularly relevant for the construction industry, composed of anything from small companies to large multi-nationals that are faced with ensuring the health and safety of their workers.

But how to do this effectively is another matter.

An assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, Deborah Young-Corbett has studied much of the existing literature and identified various problems in the industry’s current practices. In the Journal of Civil Engineering and Management, Young-Corbett explores a new field of engineering known as Prevention through Design, which suggests the optimal method of preventing occupational illnesses, injuries and fatalities is to “design out” the hazards and risk with tools, equipment, systems and facilities.

Wearable technology has become a major part of this new way of thinking.

Previous uncertainty about the effectiveness of control strategies can now be removed with objective and accurate data provided by wireless sensors. The latest wearable technologies are extremely sophisticated, allowing us to take the next leap forward in protecting workers and enhancing productivity.

What is Wearable Technology?

Wearable devices are pieces of technology that are worn on the body or in clothes, often with a biometric functionality. They can measure steps taken, heart rate, sleep patterns, temperature, movement, posture and even how hard a muscle is working.

Information collected by wearable sensor technology ensures risk management by enabling health and safety managers to:

  • pinpoint specific risk areas within manual handling tasks;
  • implement best practice measures to reduce injury;
  • improve the safety culture and education of workers;
  • enhance company morale and boost employee recruitment and retention; and
  • ensure productivity and cost-benefit to the business.

How can Wearable Technology be Used to Reduce Risk?

Cochrane argues that evidence is needed for the vast majority of technical, human factors and organizational interventions that are recommended by standard texts of safety, consultants and safety courses.

Most organizations know the importance of effective OH&S practices, yet many struggle to prove the efficacy of one system over another. How can a business make informed decisions about injury reduction if there is no hard data to support it?

Wearable technology does just that. It enables many aspects of detailed human movement and position to be accurately captured, quantified and assessed outside a biomechanics lab, in both real time and real situations.

What businesses can do with this information is crucial. The data allows so many opportunities for businesses to improve methods of working. Ultimately, safety doesn’t always have to come at the cost of profitability; in fact, both safety and productivity can improve simultaneously.

A good example is a recent application of wearable technology assessment with Transport for London. This involved a number of miniature sensors being placed on the London Tube emergency response workers in their natural work environment to determine movement, posture, and associated muscle strain on workers’ lower back and shoulders. The medical-grade wearable technology was able to confirm tasks associated with the highest risk, and provide recommendations to eliminate them in new equipment design.

In this project, the data has helped Transport for London design out risk in the new Emergency Repair Vehicles (ERV). By investing now, before the ERVs are designed, shows a real commitment to implementing strategies that will have a long-term positive impact on the number, nature and severity of injuries as a result of this manual work.

Any process that involves human movement–sport, health or construction–can benefit from wearables’ ever-evolving technology.

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