Opinion | George Orwell Predicted This: As Workplace Wearable Tech Advances, Privacy Retreats

By: | March 18, 2020

Courtney DuChene is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected].

From exoskeletons that reduce postural and musculoskeletal loads for manual laborers to sensors that warn desk job employees of potential neck, wrist and shoulder injuries, wearable technologies are revolutionizing the workers’ compensation industry.

Devices can track a worker’s heart rate and body temperature to see if they’re overheating on a hot day; they can monitor whether drivers are falling asleep on the road; and they can detect gasses that could be dangerous for workers to inhale.

With all this data at the ready, risk managers have the ability to vastly reduce or even eliminate workplace injury. In the near future, workers’ compensation could become an industry focused not on what needs to be done post-injury to get a worker back on the job, but one fixated almost entirely on injury prevention.

While the promise of safer workplaces is certainly appealing, wearables aren’t just preventing accidents. They’re also collecting data and creating potential privacy concerns.

Consider the wearable app FutureWork from altumAI or the FUSE Platform from StrongArm Technologies, for instance. Both employ wearable technologies to measure environmental and safety factors, such as proper lifting techniques, the heat index and worker motion.

They also collect data on injured workers and assign a safety or risk score that company supervisors can use to determine which of their employees are at a greater risk for injury.

When used in the name of safety, these devices are fantastic — users of the FUSE Platform report injury reduction rates of up to 30%. But devices that calculate a safety score that’s tied to an individual employee raise some ethical questions.

Rather than being used for safety interventions, the data could be used to fire an employee who repeatedly lifts incorrectly or who has a dip in productivity.

In 2019, internal documents from Amazon obtained by The Verge revealed that about 10% of the company’s staff is fired annually for a lack of productivity.

They’ve also patented a wearable device that both measures safety and tracks break time, employee fidgeting and other indicators that an employee has taken a pause from their job.

It’s situations like these that have some workers feeling apprehensive about wearable technology.

A 2019 study from Applied Ergonomics found that over 70% of workers approved of devices that tracked environmental factors that could effect safety, whereas only around 60% of workers approved of wearables that tracked their behavior.

Data privacy is another issue that employers looking to implement wearables will need to address. As more and more states consider passing data privacy laws, like the California Consumer Privacy Act, companies will need to think critically about how much data they’re collecting on workers and what that data is being used for.

Businesses shouldn’t avoid implementing wearable technologies just because some workers might be wary of the data being tracked, however. A majority of workers approved of using wearable devices to track safety, even if they monitor other behaviors like productivity.

To avoid some of the privacy pitfalls that come with wearables, businesses can develop clear company policies about what data wearables is collecting and how it’s being used.

The lines between safety monitoring and employee surveillance are becoming increasingly blurry. But when in doubt, remember, the devices exist to make workers safer, not so that supervisors can play Big Brother. &

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