Three Powerful Technologies Are Joining Forces to Revolutionize Workplace Safety

When the data from wearables is integrated with virtual and augmented reality, simulated ‘virtual workers’ will help companies get a grip on workplace risk before incidents even occur.
By: | February 21, 2019

Ask people in 2019 what a “virtual worker” is, and most might suggest an employee who works remotely in the gig economy. Or, perhaps, they might say some form of artificial intelligence automating a manual job. But soon “virtual worker” may mean something entirely different.

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In the coming years, sensor-laden wearable technology (wearables), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are set to converge, revolutionizing workplace risk management. These technologies are slated to allow employers to use virtual workers as a way to review the physiological limits of a task before sending a live human to do it.

Wearables already transformed our understanding of the impact of work on the human body. Real world data is gradually being aggregated to help employers manage staff more safely and efficiently. Soon there will be enough to confidently simulate human physiology and work environments.

Real workers could also be employed to simulate body movements in simulated environments — think Andy Serkis strapped to electrodes to create Gollum in the Lord of the Rings franchise — adding volumetric body reconstructions to the dataset.

“2020 is less than two years away, by which time 40 percent of the workforce will be millennials who will expect this kind of training.” — Kate Barnes, underwriters counsel, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions

“We think AR and VR is the next frontier when it comes to workplace health and safety,” said Lars Skari, managing partner of Altumai, a tech firm dedicated to advancing the application of wearables in the workplace. “There is a lot of disparate technology and data begging to be integrated.”

Altumai’s “connected worker platform” aggregates data from various wearable sensors and other data sources, including smart phones — which Skari believes will complement or supplant wearables in some use cases — then feeds that data back to clients in the form of risk mitigation advice.

Most of this work has so far been in agriculture: “Agriculture presents a unique set of connectivity and environmental challenges,” said Skari. “We felt that if we master that, everything else will be relatively straightforward.”

The Wearable Revolution

Wearable tech has advanced significantly in just a few years. Its origins were in tracking single movements, such as bending at the waist, but its scope quickly widened — not always with success; the AIG-backed startup Human Condition Safety, for example, filed for bankruptcy as recently as January.

Nevertheless, the sector has more success stories than failures. Ford’s SafeCap is a well-known example, monitoring truck drivers’ brainwaves to detect tiredness, instructing them to pull over and communicating with headquarters.

Doug Turk, chief marketing officer, JLT Specialty USA

Real-time worker location systems are now commonly employed in hazardous environments such as building sites to ensure people don’t walk into no-go zones and to track people quickly in the event of an accident. Once employers know what activities are driving injuries and accidents, they can better allocate resources towards safety and procedural training.

And it is little surprise more companies are taking this concept seriously. U.S. businesses spend around $60 billion annually in workers’ compensation premium, and in labor-intensive industries, this spend can be the largest single ongoing expense.

“A lot of time, money and technology are being applied to the connected worker space. Network, sensor and IoT capabilities have steadily improved and can now give us meaningful data. We are suddenly at an inflection point, and companies are now starting to realize the value,” said Doug Turk, chief marketing officer, JLT Specialty USA.

He cites Altumai’s platform, Modjoul, StrongArm and Triax among the companies whose platforms are turning wearable data from useful information to actionable data.

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According to Skari, its systems have the capability to cut musculoskeletal injuries by a third and the potential to significantly reduce claim severity, frequency and processing time. “If you can reduce worker absenteeism and improve the work environment so that workers are more effective, productivity goes up and so do revenues,” he added.

With the dataset on worker behavior growing all the time, simulated models of work environments and behaviors are inevitable — and this is where VR and AR technology comes in.

Converging Tools

Today, virtual reality is used primarily as a training tool. Employees don a VR headset and can instantly practice flying an airplane, handling hazardous materials or operating a forklift truck without putting themselves or others in danger.

“2020 is less than two years away, by which time 40 percent of the workforce will be millennials who will expect this kind of training,” said Kate Barnes, underwriters counsel for Swiss Re Corporate Solutions.

She is already seeing strong uptake of VR in the construction sector, where trainees can navigate increasingly large, complex and hazardous projects through simulations. And Barnes thinks the integration of VR, AR and wearables is a natural fit: “We tell our clients the future is now,” she said.

Indeed, it is not a huge leap to see how VR simulations can be integrated with data gathered from wearables or other IoT, such as proximity or environmental sensors, then supplemented with AR to create a powerful risk management matrix.

“Wearables are just one piece of the puzzle,” added Turk. “Once you have that data, you can then employ VR and AR to create a virtual worker model to show how certain roles should be conducted.”

Simulated workers can be stress-tested against certain industry-specific variables, such as temperature or yield in a strawberry picking field, for example. The next iteration would be to overlay AR onto real world environments to assist safety officers with risk mitigation and training.

Floor supervisors could, for example, overlay a camera or lens over the work environment in question. Their screen will show how each workers’ movements compare to ideal ranges of movement. It could also detect an employee’s propensity to get injured, as well as offer training cues.

“Wearables and IoT will give rise to more data, which will allow AR and VR to provide a richer experience. The ability to interact with the physical data in this more visual way makes it much more actionable, allowing us to coach and provide directional guidance more effectively,” said Skari.

This is all leading to a future in which each worker has a real-time risk score that is constantly monitored. The impact on insurance premiums could be significant for companies and can provide robust data demonstrating how work behaviors and incident rates have improved.

“Any safety improvement has to be considered in pricing,” said Barnes. Alternatively, Turk thinks access to these insights could encourage more firms to choose adaptive self-insurance for workers’ comp.

Making the Leap

But when will this become a reality? Skari believes the way we interact with data will change dramatically in the next two to three years thanks to the rise of 5G and further improvements to 3D modelling techniques.

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“Will it change dramatically within the next year? Perhaps not,” he added, though he revealed his company is working on a smartphone app that would allow the user to scan the work environment and to see risks and mitigating coaching factors pop up on the screen for each worker.

“We’re closer than we think,” said Turk. “If we consider the human body as a machine, once we have enough data to understand how the machine operates, we can quite easily conduct virtual stress tests,” though, Turk added, he doesn’t expect to see this kind of system in use for a number of years.

“Network, sensor and IoT capabilities have steadily improved and can now give us meaningful data. We are suddenly at an inflection point, and companies are now starting to realize the value.” — Doug Turk, chief marketing officer, JLT Specialty USA

The primary challenge is to build a large and reliable dataset from which to model workers and work environments. Data processing power is of course a key hurdle — wearables generate enough data on their own without the computational demands of VR or AR also being thrust upon a single server.

Then there are ongoing issues around the consent of workers and the privacy and security of data generated by wearables. However, these challenges are surmountable, and virtual worker simulations are an inevitable next step. Those companies that partner with insurtech experts to develop models of their own workplaces may just unearth a game-changing influence on their bottom lines. &

Antony Ireland is a London-based financial journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now and where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]