Using Wearable Tech for Workplace Safety

Written BY

Emily Friedman

September 23, 2015

As on-the-job injuries cost around $200 billion each year, it is no wonder that wearables are being tested to improve safety in a variety of workplaces, including oil fields, construction sites, coal mines, power plants, shipyards, and factories.

Wearable tech has the potential to augment safety efforts in a range of industries, from mining and oil & gas to manufacturing, aviation, and logistics. Hands-free wearables can be employed to monitor workers' vitals along with their exposure to harmful elements/chemicals and their proximity to danger zones. The technology can also heighten workers' situational awareness by continuously collecting data on the jobsite itself, detecting such things as environmental conditions and the “health” of various equipment and machinery. Wearable devices can provide safety alerts and prompts to employees in the field, remind workers of context-specific safety procedures, and even enable an injured worker to reach out for help.

Read on for descriptions of several wearable safety solutions in the workplace.

Use Case: Matrix Medical Network; Location: United States; Device: the AlertGPS Solution

In-home medical care providers hold one of the most important jobs in the nation. They ease the lives of patients and their families, nurture people back to health, and relieve some of the burdens and stresses otherwise felt by the rest of the healthcare system.

Unfortunately, these individuals also expose their personal safety to great risk in the course of their duties. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in-home healthcare providers are four times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than are workers in any other industry.

Matrix Medical Network appreciates this danger. The thriving national company, which employs more than 500 high-touch, in-home care service providers, teamed up with Alert GPS to provide the company's personal wearable safety solution to its staff.

AlertGPS wearable devices allow Matrix's staff to access ONE Touch SOS alerting. If they're at risk or threatened, the simple touch of a button will instantly alert authorized personnel to the emergency. In addition, the authorized personnel are able to know exactly where an at-risk employee is located at any given moment, which shaves critical minutes off response time in case of an emergency.

The wearable technology provides additional safety features such as predator alerts, so if a staff member is scheduled to work near the home of a registered sex offender, he or she will be alerted right away. Furthermore, if an employee exits a designated “safe zone,” authorized personnel will receive an instant alert. Such a feature is crucial in abduction situations or cases where a worker becomes incapacitated–both unfortunate risks of the job. The AlertGPS solution also enables Matrix to send mass notifications to all its staff in the event of an emergency like inclement weather, a terrorist attack, or any other relevant threat.

Though Matrix is headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, it is a nationwide organization with operations divided into four regions. The AlertGPS wearable safety solution keeps the managers of each region in instant communication with their teams.

Device: Wearable Patches

Australian engineers have been working on smart patches capable of detecting environmental hazards such as UV radiation and toxic gas. Like a nicotine patch, these stretchy, transparent sensors can be applied to the skin; but they could potentially be sewn into clothing, too, and even send a smartphone alert when jobsite safety has been compromised.

In an industrial setting like a mine or power plant, this kind of wearable technology could save lives from catastrophes such as gas leaks and hydrogen explosions. Although portable gas detection systems already exist, the devices are typically bulky. A patch on the skin or better yet a sensor stitched into a worker’s uniform would be both unobtrusive and next to invisible.

Right now, the stretchy sensors can only detect high levels of hydrogen and nitrogen dioxide (along with UV light), even though smaller amounts of those gases also pose a risk. Nevertheless, flexible electronics like the Australian smart patches are estimated to be ready for market within the next five years.

Use Case: Rio Tinto (mining industry); Location: Still in the Down Under; Device: SmartCap

Dump truck drivers at Rio Tinto’s coal mines in Hunter Valley are wearing a device called the SmartCap to avoid fatigue-related accidents on the job. The SmartCap may look like a regular baseball cap but it is much, much smarter, able to conduct regular EEG tests on the wearer.

The technology works by measuring a worker’s brainwaves throughout the day; presumably, the data is continuously analyzed, processed and put on a scale to assess the worker’s alertness or ability to resist sleep. In the Rio Tinto case, the SmartCap has been utilized to provide early warnings to truck drivers approaching a microsleep.

Though the SmartCap developed out of the mining sector, its potential applications are far-reaching. The impact of fatigue on workers’ safety and productivity is, of course, an issue not exclusive to mining. Fatigue-monitoring wearable tech could benefit the oil and gas, aviation, and manufacturing industries, as well. Really a device like the SmartCap is applicable in any workplace in which employees’ alertness is critical to their safety as well as their productivity.

In addition, Rio Tinto has piloted the use of another wearable safety solution, this time geared toward workers operating heavy machinery. The Readiband plus an analytics tool – both created by Fatigue Science – has provided information enabling Rio Tinto to implement new and improved guidelines around the length of workers’ shifts.

As a client of both Motion Metrics and Vandrico Solutions, Rio Tinto may also be deploying smart glasses to help in its workplace safety efforts. The two companies are reportedly working together to develop a smart glass application for hard-rock mining, which would put safety and efficiency information in the hands – or rather, line of view – of mine supervisors.

Use Case: Marathon Petroleum (oil & gas); Location: United States; Device: Accenture Life Safety Solution

One of the many challenges in the oil and gas industry lies in keeping employees safe in dangerous and remote environments. Around 2011, Marathon Petroleum teamed up with Accenture to develop the Accenture Life Safety Solution, a “wireless-enabled multi-gas detection system” that helps protect workers in potentially hazardous situations.

Essentially, this early, even pioneering wearable safety solution is a device that combines Wi-Fi and location-based technologies with gas detectors capable of sensing multiple types of hazardous gases. The combination enables safety and operations managers in the oil & gas sector to remotely monitor workers in locations that were traditionally unsuited for wireless networks because of, say, a dense steel infrastructure. Such locations include, of course, refineries as well as chemical plants.

After successfully trialing the technology at two of its process units, Marathon deployed the solution across its Robinson, Illinois refinery. Not only is the Accenture Life Safety Solution capable of tracking harmful gas exposure but it also features a panic button, a motion sensor (that detects when a worker stops moving for a certain length of time), and a “GPS mechanism” for immediately identifying and locating an endangered worker anywhere in the refinery plant. This is key given that Marathon’s Robinson refinery operation is massive, with workers widely dispersed across 1,000 acres of process units, a tank farm, and also off-site facilities.

Knowing that their safety was being monitored not only in new, previously impossible ways but also continuously and no matter their location gave Marathon employees who wore the Accenture device a greater sense of confidence and security. In addition, Marathon reported cost savings resulting from its implementation of the wearable safety solution.

Further Reading