Wearables and Ergonomics: What You Don’t Know Might Hurt Somebody

A pilot program at a large beverage manufacturer drastically reduced the frequency of poor ergonomics decisions by employees.
By: | March 5, 2021

Two half-hour sessions at the virtual National Ergonomics Conference focused on ways employers can use wearable devices to provide data-driven solutions and develop individualized programs to minimize workplace injuries.

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Both sessions are now available for view on-demand.

A Pilot Program for Wearables

The session “Using Wearable Technology, Leading Risk Indicators and Athletic Trainers to Engage Workers in Injury Prevention and Management” highlighted the findings of a pilot program in which employees at a large beverage distribution company donned wearable sensors to counteract a rise of injuries within their materials handling positions.

The session was presented by Kelson Wann, solutions advisor-innovation and consulting, for Briotix Health in Denver, which conducted the pilot program.

Wann said the company was seeing primarily repetitive injuries of the back such as sprains and strains, which were adversely impacting the company in many ways.

“It was causing financial impacts as the cost of claims were increasing,” he said. “It was impacting their production and performance when people were out and they needed to bring in secondary people to fill in shifts.”

The wearable sensors objectively monitored employee movement and were paired with individualized body mechanics coaching and overall training and education to improve employees’ movements.

After researching different options, the company chose a wearable sensor that monitored back postures and provided haptic feedback, which is a slight, non-painful vibration, to improve employee awareness.

“The company wanted their employees to understand that they might be lifting a thousand times a day,” Wann said.

The eight-week program was unique in its focus on data-driven changes and individualized follow-up with employees to help them adjust their movements.

“There are a lot of wearable sensors on the market, but very few are used on a daily basis to drive individualized and unique interventions on a person-by-person basis,” Wann said.

Even the small vibration an employee felt if they bent or moved in a injurious way was an intervention that started to increase their awareness. Based on the number and ways in which they were moving incorrectly, the employees were scored and received individualized body mechanics coaching.

“Based on their score, we’d go to that individual and say ‘Hey. Let’s work on your lifting technique,” Wann said.

“We were able to address each person’s high-risk factors while they were on the job.’”

During the first two weeks of the program, the company collected data to develop a baseline of employee movement. In the next six weeks, they provided the interventions and coaching.

Over the eight-week program, the company experienced a 34% decrease in high-risk movements from about 150 a day down to about 100.

Wearables Used to Engage with Workers

The session “Using Wearable Technology, Leading Risk Indicators and Athletic Trainers to Engage Workers” dove into ways employers can use wearable technology to identify leading injury risk indicators and develop effective interventions, including the deployment of athletic trainers to work with at-risk employees on prevention and management of work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

Nick Magana, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and ergonomics program manager for Southern California Edison, said his company is using wearable technologies to better understand the stress placed on employees due to their jobs and work-related movements.

The wearables have had another benefit of helping safety professionals improve their understanding of ergonomics.

“The technology helps individuals in safety, who may not be an expert in ergonomics, really understand how the movements associated with the work is adding stress to different areas of the body,” he said. “In addition, we are using wearable technology as a solution.”

For example, the company has started using exoskeletons that are placed on a user to help reduce back fatigue.

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“Exoskeletons are still new to industries and best practices are still being explored but adding solutions that can reduce stress to the body without hindering performance is key,” he said.

Wearable technology offers many other benefits, Magana said, including making assessments of the stressors placed on bodies more objective.

“It’s bringing a reliable and validating process to industrial ergonomics, which is not as easy to do in industrial settings, and which is important because different individuals assessing the same task tend to see things differently.”

Magana said he hopes session attendees will gain insight into the types of wearable technologies available, how they are being used and how they can increase the effectiveness of a safety program.

Wearables have the potential to increase everyone’s awareness of how to move more safely.

“Wearable technology can turn anyone into an ergonomist,” he said. “The key requirement is to be a good data collector. Let the technology do the work for you.” &

Sign up for virtual National Ergonomics Conference sessions at ergoexpo.com.

Annemarie Mannion is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected]

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