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Is Wearable Technology the Solution to Lone Worker Safety?

Lone working happens in a broad range of workplaces and industries – transportation and logistics, retail, sales, social, healthcare, forestry, environment, construction, engineering and others. Basically, whenever there’s an activity that requires working remotely and unsupervised.

This variety of activities means two things:

1.       A lack of standardization when it comes to policies protecting lone workers.

2.       A diversity of hazardous situations that may go undetected - from work accidents due to equipment misuse, to emergencies caused by sudden illness or physical violence.

In this context, how do know all your people are safe?

Out of sight, out of mind

In the US, mobile worker population is expected to grow over the next five years and reach 105.4 million mobile workers in 2020, according to an IDC study.

This expansion is driven by the increasing affordability of smartphones and their acceptance in corporate BYOD programs, but also by innovations in mobile technology. Voice control, NFC, biometric readers, augmented reality, and especially wearables are enabling worker productivity and safety both inside and outside the workplace.

The global wearable devices market is expected to be worth more than $84 billion in 2022, according to a Gartner report.

In the world of safety, wearable technology can take the form of smart sensor-embedded PPE. More and more wearable solutions are being piloted and embraced in working environments, in an effort to improve worker effectiveness, enhance safety and customer experience.

RFID-embedded hard hats, smart goggles, smart clothing and smart footwear can now monitor movement, as well as heart rates and body temperature. Connected personal hearing devices use Bluetooth technology to stream audio from smartphones, increasing productivity levels, while also attenuating noise. Biometric earbuds are being tested in measuring heart rates and oxygen levels. Head-mounted displays are increasingly being used for remote expert guidance.

Oil major Shell is embracing digital transformation by empowering its remote workers with head-mounted voice-controlled computers for remote assistance – enabling maintenance workers to get real-time assistance via video calling, for instance.

“A new era of computing has arrived,” said Michael Kaldenbach, Shell’s digital realities lead. “Just as laptops and mobile phones are standard for desk workers, voice command and augmented reality for wearable computers will become commonplace for field staff in our industry, driving safety and productivity.”

Location tells half the story

Within this broad offering, there’s a myriad of GPS-powered devices.

Devices with GPS technology are connected to satellites that broadcast radio signals to a device - this gathers information and sends it to an external monitoring system (usually a cloud-based system) which, in turn processes the information and displays it via an accessible mobile or web-based application. Thus, with the click of button or a swipe, safety managers can track remote workers’ movement and location from anywhere, anytime.

“Wearable technology is all about data, and collecting real-time location data of workers through GPS is becoming a key value when reacting to emergency situations or, more importantly, preventing incidents, Jacob Spector, Product Manager at Honeywell, said in a recent interview for SafetyAndHealth Magazine.

“It’s becoming more common for intrinsically safe devices such as smartphones, gas detectors and radios to leverage GPS signals and data,” he said. “This development opens up a whole new world of possibilities from the standpoint of worker protection.”

In this process, two-way communication is essential in connecting people off the grid. Whether it’s a fire alarm or a power outage, it’s important that workers can confirm their safety in an emergency situation.

Two-way communication is also one of the key aspects in the guidelines for lone worker safety published by the Washington State Department of Labor Industries. “Supervisors check in with employees working in isolation through both periodic visits and communication devices," the document reads.

In addition to periodic check-ins, alarms and warning systems give workers and employers more peace of mind. Automatic alarm systems prove especially useful in reducing risks in the event of a lone worker losing consciousness or suffering an accident that impedes speaking.  

Panic buttons give workers the ability to call for help in the event of a crisis. This is of course, key to making search and emergency rescue possible. However, what happens after the alarm is triggered is equally important – emergency procedures and training should in place and available to all workers.

When it comes to confined spaces, some of the most dangerous working environments out there, wireless portable gas monitors play a key role in ensuring that a lone worker’s exposure to toxic gases remains within safety limits.  But more importantly, by connecting wearable detectors with distributed control systems, safety managers have instant access to worker location and movements - this decreases safety risks for offsite workers.

Trust & privacy

The adoption of any smart technology sparks privacy concerns. Are workers afraid of being spied on?

Undoubtfully, workers are reluctant to embrace technology if they feel they will be spied on. That is why employers need to set up a policy informing workers of the GPS-tracking functionality. Before seeking employee consent, employers should discuss the benefits and address concerns, reassure people that they are not doubting their work ethics, but rather using ethical tracking – overseeing their activity for their own safety and well-being.

“Leveraging connected technology in the wearable devices adds an extra layer of protection for the worker so they can be confident doing their job and go home safe at the end of the day,” Spector said.