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Wearable Technology Can Improve Workplace Safety

Technology is changing the way we work, think, move, sleep and interact with each other. Technology is also changing the way risk is assessed.

Wearable technology, once strictly the domain of professional athletes and sports physiotherapists, is now being used in construction to make data-driven decisions and assess on a micro-level the way workers are moving every day.

Increasingly, safety managers are giving greater attention to methods for reducing injury and costs, while improving productivity and improving the safety culture and education of workers. Whether the workforce is on a remote site or urban area, safety in the workplace is an important, and potentially costly, issue.

Work-related injuries across all industries are a $250 billion problem in the United States, with lower back injuries accounting for nearly 20 percent of all workplace injuries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, back injuries are the biggest drivers of lost employee work days: 19.6 percent of all manual-handling injuries in the private sector were back injuries.

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. Therefore, it’s in contractors’ interests to invest in making workplaces safer for the health of their workers and the health of their bottom line.

Most organizations 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.

Injuries start somewhere. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, such as an accidental slip or fall. But often the root cause of injuries in construction is poor technique or asymmetrical loading. Wearable sensor technology is now so sophisticated that it can record every step, bend, twist and turn, and instantly report back where poor movement is placing workers at risk of injury.

The latest in wireless wearable sensor technology can measure human movement like never before, to give companies objective, easy-to-interpret data that can be turned into measurable results. Small, wireless sensors are placed on workers as they go about their workday, providing live data that is then combined with high-definition video to pinpoint risk areas of repetitive “red zone” movements that can lead to injuries.

Driving down workplace risk means driving down the number of workdays employees miss due to injury, and increases productivity and efficiency. That helps protect family incomes, boost employee recruitment and retention, enhance company morale and improve the employer’s bottom line.

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.

Unsafe work environments cost companies now and later, driving up insurance costs and hurting productivity. Injuries also can reduce employee morale and impact employee retention, so it’s in every business’ best interest to invest in improving worker safety and reducing risk.

The latest in innovative wearable sensor technologies are helping construction businesses verify new methods of working that are safer and more efficient, which has the power to change how workplaces operate and ultimately improve the safety culture. By recording, mapping and exactly monitoring movement, it’s possible to significantly impact the rate of injuries, ensure safe recovery, and maintain an optimal level of health for workers and the business overall.

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