Why Today’s Workplace Wearables Could Become Tomorrow’s EPL Claims

Employers monitoring their employees' health is fueling a boom in the amount of health information available to insurance companies and employers.
By: | March 7, 2019 • 3 min read

Employers are using fitness tracking devices like FitBits and Apple Watches to monitor employee health data, which, in turn, is fueling a boom in the amount of health information available to insurance companies and employers.


The Washington Post reported on the phenomenon in fascinating detail: “The volume of highly sensitive health data scooped up from individual employees is exploding, too, raising privacy concerns and adding a new dimension to the relationship of workers and their employers. Often the information is not covered by federal rules that protect health records from disclosure,” the Post reported. “And when it’s combined with data such as credit scores, employees are giving up more insights about themselves than they realize.”

By the Numbers

The use of tracking devices is far more common than you might think. In fact:

  • 20 percent of employers used some kind tracking on their employees’ health last year, compared to 14 percent in 2017. A Springbuk survey put that number at 35 percent.
  • 18 million wearable devices will be used for company wellness programs by 2023.
  • Up to $1,000 a year: That’s how much enrollees in UnitedHealthcare Motion could receive by hitting certain fitness goals, like 10,000 steps in a day.

Monitoring to Motivate

In the Post‘s article, it followed Wayne Gono, owner of Regal Plastics in Irving, Texas. Gono uses fitness monitoring tools to motivate employees to live healthier lifestyles — namely by taking more steps each day. One named Eddie Watson lost 40 pounds by counting his steps. Another, Chris Zubko, is recovering from a heart attack and gets motivational calls from Gono, who monitors his steps and workouts in real time.

“A digital fitness tracker strapped to Zubko’s wrist sends a tally of his daily movements, via the company’s UnitedHealth Group insurance account, to an app on his boss’s phone,” the Post reported. “While some employees might find this real-time feedback intrusive, Zubko, 51, said he is unfazed. ‘He’s a real motivator,’’ Zubko said.”

The positives are hard to ignore: Employee wellness plans have been around for years. When employees lose weight, stop smoking or exercise more, there’s a better chance that their overall health will be better — and health care costs will decrease. One could argue that fitness monitoring devices are simply tools to help people reach their wellness goals. Counting steps, monitoring heart rates and reducing sedentary time all help create a healthier employee.

There are also implications for workers’ compensation programs. If employees are lifting incorrectly, not sitting ergonomically or doing otherwise dangerous movements, those behaviors can not only be monitored but easily fixed — leading to safer workplaces with fewer claims. (This white paper from AIG lays out nine reasons to embrace wearables to increase worker safety.)

But it’s intrusive and considered ‘creepy’: Should your employer really have information on your sleep cycle? Should they be able to check your heart rate? In turn, would they be more likely to promote a worker with good health scores and punish those who are less healthy?

It’s certainly a possibility said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for consumer privacy.

“It’s quite possible there will be effects on whether you are retained, promoted, demoted — who is first to be laid off,” Tien told the Post.

Staying Positive

Like wellness programs, it’s better to stay positive rather than punitive. Reward people for losing weight or quitting smoking — don’t punish them for failing to take a certain number of steps each month. Also, give employees the ability to opt-in.


Further Reading: Our Risk Insider Andy Hosman, vice president of operational risk solutions at Sphera, explained how wearables are transforming workplace safety.

Meanwhile, attorney Richard Reice wrote in Bloomberg that health monitoring is lawful but comes with plenty of potential pitfalls: “This level of personal surveillance gives rise to a host of legal, privacy, data usage, data protection, discrimination and morale issues that should be considered as employers deploy wearables and develop related workplace policies.” &

Jared Shelly is a journalist based in Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]