July 3, 2018
Improving worker safety is a mission that never seems to end. Hazards in the workplace are always evolving, as are the gear, tools and methods developed to mitigate risks. Our understanding of safety in the workplace is also evolving: For instance, though it’s hard to quantify, we know that safety has a great impact on productivity. Nevertheless, according to Nationwide, 51% of businesses don’t have an Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) specialist on staff while 38% don’t offer any formal safety training.
Though wearable technologies, including body-worn sensors, heads-up displays and robotic suits, are being touted as promising safety solutions for industrial workers; it was only two years ago that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the highest number of work-related deaths in nearly a decade. The rise of fatal injuries on the job, however, does not mean that wearables aren’t ready for primetime or that companies aren’t using them. It means organizations are not yet leveraging these technologies to their full capacity as part of a larger, connected and proactive system for safety in the workplace.
There are, in fact, effective wearable safety devices today. According to Sam Murley, EHS Digital Acceleration Leader at GE, General Electric is exploring and deploying them in nearly 40 pilot and deployment programs around the globe: “These are things that can save lives today, the same way insulated gloves and hard hats do…These technologies don’t live in labs; they’re ready to go. The obstacles lie in communicating the value when in place and identifying new stakeholders to help drive broader adoption.” Plenty of GE-league companies are, at the very least, piloting wearable solutions—enough so that for the first time the EWTS 2018 program will devote an entire afternoon track to safety and training case studies. The devices range from simple sensor-embedded bracelets to VR headsets and partial exoskeletons, and cases are springing up across all sectors: In addition to Sam, speakers from retail giant Walmart and multinational brewing company Molson Coors will share first-hand experiences of using wearables to increase safety in their organizations.
A number of factors could explain why wearable safety tech isn’t exactly making waves in enterprise: Lack of awareness (a lot of the focus is around AR/VR), the challenges of choosing the right use case and gaining internal support and funding, the complexity of Big Data (translating raw wearable data into actionable safety insights), and even generational differences (Millennial business owners are leading the adoption of connected technologies for safety). While there is a lot of buzz around augmented and virtual reality devices for heads-up information, training and remote support (all of which influence the user’s safety); wearables that track employees’ physical condition and blend into their work attire are less glamorous and less obvious when it comes to showing ROI. Take something like location tracking: A simple GPS-tracking band coupled with geofencing could help keep employees out of known hazard zones, but how do you quantify that in terms of cost savings? More exciting tech like exoskeletons poses the same challenge: If you have 10 less injuries than last year after giving exoskeletons to a group of welders, what is the ROI?
When asked to give advice to EHS managers just beginning to look at emerging technologies, Sam Murley said “Know what problems you’re trying to solve and leverage what has been done in the past.” Taking that advice, here are a few recent initiatives at GE that provide not only example use cases but also best practices and a look into the future of wearable and other emerging technologies in EHS: “In the very near future…we’ll completely digitize the way risks are managed…Workers will have a digital toolkit of wearables at their disposal as required PPE [personal protective equipment] as well as optional tools they’ll use to augment some of their work. As long as it doesn’t over-innovate the user and has data value, EHS in organizations could potentially get to zero quo.” – Sam Murley, GE
Working with and wearing robots:
Robots are increasingly taking over dangerous and repetitive tasks in the workplace. At GE, the choice between deploying a companion robot with a human worker and augmenting the worker with an exoskeleton comes down to “how hazardous the task is and how long you need the human brain involved in the process.” In the case of the dangerous and dirty job of inspecting a dark chemical storage tank, GE has been testing a 4-foot-long, snake-like robot made by Sarcos Robotics. Equipped with magnetic tracks, ‘Guardian S’ can slither up and down the walls of the storage tank and across the debris- and grime-covered floor, using embedded sensors in its head and tail to perform the inspection and share information with workers outside the tank. There’s no need to stop the operation or have rescue services on standby.
If you’re wondering what happens to the workers relieved of this hazardous task by Guardian S; they become the operators and decision makers or are otherwise reassigned to less dangerous jobs. GE’s interest in robotics is not about replacing humans but rather augmenting them, allowing workers to complete tasks in hazardous, inaccessible, and unstable environments without putting themselves at risk. Not only does Guardian S keep human workers safe; it’s also better and faster at its job. The human-managed technology can even be customized with features like magnets, boom cameras, and ultrasonic thickness sensors to perform tasks in a variety of work environments, from power-generation facilities to oil sites and wind turbines.
Sarcos Robotics also makes a pair of track-mounted robotic arms to help users lift heavy objects and is working on a load-bearing exoskeleton to enhance human strength. GE is very interested in wearable robotics to improve and simplify EHS and increase productivity across its operations. Along with other big companies like Delta and BMW; GE has joined Sarcos’ new Exoskeleton Technical Advisory Group (X-TAG), created to advance exoskeletons in industry. The technology has enormous potential: Robotic suits will match human intelligence and improvisation with machine strength and precision. Workers’ physical performance and wellbeing will improve; less manpower will be required to do the same amount of work; and workers’ compensation, healthcare and downtime costs will decrease.
A proactive stance on safety with AI & wearables:
When asked what makes a killer application of new technology at GE, Sam Murley replied, “When you have edge-to-edge systems that can protect the worker directly and push data from the worker and environment back to a system to intervene…Those are killer platforms and there are a few out there that we’re using right now.” GE began piloting such a platform in 2016—specifically, two injury prevention systems by StrongArm Technologies that combine wearables, data analytics and machine learning (AI).
GE workers at several sites worldwide wore ErgoSkeletons (like a cross between a smart harness belt and a backpack) while lifting and carrying heavy loads, performing repetitive tasks, and during highly complex procedures. These passive exoskeletons work by redistributing weight from a central point of the user’s body across stronger areas of the body or by supporting arms and legs during overhead work, thereby preventing back, shoulder, arm, and leg injuries while increasing product quality. The exoskeletons can be worn with or without StrongArm’s FUSE ergonomic sensor which tracks the user’s ergonomic movement through their data analytics software and provides live coaching via haptics for safer posture and physical technique.
In addition to getting workers to perform better and use their full body (relieving strain on the arms and lower back), the solution generates real-time data that can give insights into EHS at GE. With AI, GE managers can isolate problematic ergonomic areas and make preventative changes to the work environment as well as figure out which workers need intervention and training.
According to IBM and Cisco, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day, and most of it is never captured, analyzed or used. Wearable technology can provide gigs and gigs of safety-related data but if that data lives in a vacuum, it’s wasted: “I think the most successful technology gives you immediate feedback while measuring some activity in the human body or environment and tying it back into a decision-making platform.” – Sam Murley, GE
GE is taking a well-rounded digital approach to EHS, using wearable and other emerging technologies to digitize safety. Beyond robotic enhancements and ergonomic sensors; heads-up displays, VR headsets, lone worker management devices, hazard-sensing bands, and even drones are presenting EHS pros with new ways to protect and empower workers, make training more effective, reduce injury and costs, and enable data-driven decision making on both a micro and macro level.
*For more expert insight on how GE is finding solutions, setting up pilots and working through deployment issues, read our full interview with EHS Digital Acceleration Leader and EWTS 2018 presenter Sam Murley here.
The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 5th annual EWTS will be held October 9-10, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. For more details, please visit the conference website.
Image source: Sarcos Robotics