The Complete Risk & Insurance Guide to Workplace Wearables

By: | March 12, 2020

A Booming Market

Wearable technology is more dynamic than ever. Smart watches measure your heart rate, step counts and calories burned. Exoskeletons help you lift with superhuman strength. Motion sensors measure bending and twisting — and notify you if your form is dangerous. 

These increasingly sophisticated devices worn on the body contain electronic components that track movements, collect data and provide customized reports for individual users.

Some are designed to help workers perform their jobs better. Others are designed to help prevent injuries. Some offer a combination of both.

On the consumer side, wearables have gone mainstream with Fitbit and Apple Watch leading the way. Gartner predicts that worldwide spending on wearables will reach $52 billion in 2020 — up 27% from 2019.

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In the workplace, wearables are becoming more popular than ever.

In fact, the global industrial wearable market reached $1.64 billion in 2018 and is projected to exceed $2.78 billion by 2024 — a 64% increase, according to a report by Research and Markets. It predicts increased usage in fields like health care, IT, telecom and manufacturing. 

“Companies are very interested in wearables as they plan for the future of their workforces,” said David Schatsky, managing director at Deloitte.

“If you have an aging workforce, wearables are worth considering to prolong the working life of your people. If you have health and safety issues, it’s time to explore how these technologies will help in that regard. No matter what your issue, there could be a solid case for adopting.”

Still, experts caution that we’re in the technology’s early days. Costs need to decline and capabilities need to increase before they can become truly ubiquitous at work. 

Read on to learn about different types of wearables; how they’re transforming workplaces around the world; how they’re reducing injuries; and the legal liabilities associated with this burgeoning technology.

3 Types of Wearables

1) Smartphone apps

These applications work on your smartphone, just like Instagram or Spotify.

They perform a wide variety of tasks from offering ergonomic tips to allowing for quick reporting of unsafe work conditions. These apps use the device’s built-in technology to measure noise levels or movements.

The advantages are obvious — everybody has a phone. That ubiquity makes it much easier to roll out the technology to a wide range of workers.

The downside is that they’re typically not nearly as powerful and sophisticated as wearables designed with their own hardware. A good rule of thumb: Think of phone apps as consumer products and wearable hardware as industrial products. 

2) Passive

These are observe-and-report wearables, like a smart watch, smart glasses or a device that monitors motion. This category could also include wearables that measure air quality or other environmental factors.

These devices can transmit real-time safety warnings to workers’ phones or other hardware and deliver ergonomics and safety reports to managers. Employers can then use the data to implement process changes. 

3) Active

These wearables immediately impact a worker’s performance on a particular task.

For example, exoskeletons can help people lift heavy weights with ease or ensure that they’re properly supported when performing bends or twists. Pager-like devices can immediately alert users of poor posture. Augmented reality (AR) overlays can help people perform their jobs without switching back-and-forth to instruction manuals.

These wearables come with their own hardware and software.

The Benefits of Wearables at Work

Increase strength and abilities. Certain wearables allow workers to easily lift heavy weights, augment their fields of vision, hear more clearly and enhance gripping power.

Prevent injuries. Wearables can help measure how a worker is bending, stretching, straining or lifting — and offer suggestions on how best to prevent dangerous behaviors. Done correctly, employers can make significant procedural changes that ultimately reduce workers’ compensation costs and promote overall worker safety.

Keep aging workers on the job longer. Older workers are staying in the workforce much longer these days, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For 55- to 64-year-olds, participation rates increased from 57.9% in 1996 to a projected 66.6% in 2020. In the 65-to-74 age bracket, the increase is even more pronounced — rising from 17.5% in 1996 to a projected 30.2% in 2026. Wearables can help these workers continue operating at peak performance levels. 

Reduce the threat of automation. As technology evolves, worries about automation loom large. While many believe robots will take our jobs, experts argue that humans and machines will work together as technology gets more sophisticated. People will do what they’re good at — unstructured tasks, applying common sense, dealing with the unexpected — and machines will do what they’re good at — tasks that require superhuman strength, endurance or superman like vision. Wearables bring human and machine together.

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Keep tabs on environmental conditions. Some wearables are designed to detect unsafe conditions like excessive heat, poor air quality or humidity issues.

Real-time data. The interconnectivity of wearables allows for quick reporting of unsafe behavior in real time. That allows workers to immediately modify unsafe behaviors and employers to immediately respond to unsafe conditions. 

Analyze historic trends. After a few months or years, a company can build up a data set to determine how behaviors and conditions are changing over time — and continue making thoughtful tweaks to their processes.

The Drawbacks of Wearables at Work

It’s early days. The tech is still young. While established companies appear to be progressing well and partnering with large employers — there are burgeoning startups just trying to get their prototypes off the ground.

“Wearables are in their infancy now,” said Jeff Eddinger, senior division executive at National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI). “Companies are in the proof-of-concept phase right now, hoping that data from these devices can be used to prevent future injuries.” 

It can be cost prohibitive. Many wearables are still expensive and rolling them out to large groups of workers isn’t easy.

“It’s hard to roll it out to a million workers. The largest single deployment of a wearable that I’m aware of is 300 workers,” said Douglas Turk, CEO of altumAi, which helps to avoid workplace injuries by capturing and interpreting data. 

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Pilot rollouts can only offer so much insight. Running a pilot program gives a snapshot of, say, how a set of workers perform movements day-after-day.

That’s useful to revise job tasks and processes — but doesn’t give you an ongoing view of how those behaviors change over time. 

Privacy looms large. Protecting the privacy of the data collected through wearables is crucial — especially if you’re collecting biometrics like body temperature or blood pressure.

A data breach could lead to major exposure.

Analyzing data isn’t straightforward. With the technology being so new and sophisticated, employers must get educated on how to actually read the reports they’re getting.

“It’s akin to an MRI,” said Turk. “The technology is incredibly useful but the injured person can’t read the report. It has to be read by an expert.”

Wearables are not a substitute for proven safety programs. Simply implementing wearables won’t increase safety.

You still need to analyze data and make thoughtful process changes.

Workers might see wearables as an invasion of privacy. Many will need to be convinced of the benefits and privacy protections before agreeing to participate.

Wearables to Increase Strength

Humans can only lift so much weight on their own. They can only perform repetitive tasks for so long without fatigue setting in and screwing up their form. Luckily, certain wearables can dramatically increase human strength.

Exoskeletons attach to a worker’s body, making it easier to lift heavy objects or perform repetitive tasks. In many ways, it’s the perfect blend of human and machine. The human maintains their judgement and agility while the machine literally does the heavy lifting.

Other systems increase grip strength. Ironhand, for example, can reduce strain on workers’ hands as they perform tasks, artificially strengthening their grip so they can work with less risk of injury or fatigue.

Wearables in the Wild

Delta Airlines is piloting the Sarcos Guardian XO, a battery-powered, full-body exoskeleton designed to enable an employee “to lift up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours at a time without strain or fatigue,” according to Robotics and Automation News.

Ford deployed exoskeletons in its Valencia, Spain plant to improve the endurance and morale of its older employees.

GM and NASA spent nine years working with Swedish manufacturer Bioservo to create the Roboglove, which uses tendon-like features to increase grip strength and reduce strain.

Wearables to Augment Vision 

Augmented reality (AR) overlays instructions, directions or graphics directly into someone’s field of vision.

For example, a factory worker wearing AR-enabled glasses can see instructions layered onto their field of vision. Perhaps they even see an arrow pointing to a specific part in a complex machine. They’ll save time by not having to switch back-and-forth between a manual and the task at hand. 

Wearables in the Wild

DHL uses AR and smart glasses for logistics planning, process execution and transportation. They add-on virtual layers of contextual information to empower workers with the right information and the right times.

Wearables to Augment Voice

While applications like Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri have been popularized in the commercial markets, there are plenty of voice-command applications in the workplace.

For example, a retail worker helping a customer can simply speak some commands into a headset rather than digging through a book or searching on a tablet. That lets them get needed information quicker and get back to serving their customers.

In a manufacturing setting, a worker can use voice commands to get information and without having to stop working to consult a manual.

Wearables in the Wild

Air New Zealand is implementing a customer-service wearable using Google’s wireless Bluetooth Pixel Buds headphones that allow a representative to live translate more than 40 languages at one time.

Wearables to Prevent Injuries

The most common workplace injuries stem from overexertion, like lifting, lowering, repetitive motion (34%); being struck or caught in a piece of equipment (26%); or slips, trips and falls (26%), according to the National Safety Council.

Wearables can help prevent injuries by enhancing a worker’s strength, hearing or overlaying information so people can concentrate more easily. They can also analyze worker movements and detect dangerous ergonomics. They can even help injured workers get back on their feet sooner. 

The most effective implementations connect workers to the risk. If a manager tells you that back on Wednesday you bent over five times at an unsafe angle, that’s probably not as meaningful as feeling a buzzer vibrate the moment you perform that unsafe action.

The technology has insurers cautiously hopeful.

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“Wearables have the potential to be a game changer in workers’ compensation,” said Eddinger, from NCCI.

“If they solve the current issues, a significant number of people use them, and they can be shown to reduce injuries — they can really impact costs. We’re all hopeful of anything with the potential to reduce costs and injuries.”

Wearables in the Wild

BMW, John Deere and Toyota use an exoskeleton made by Levitate Technologies to reduce injuries. The exoskeleton helps workers reach overhead by offering what feels like gentle support at the elbows. Joseph Zawaideh, VP at Levitate told Forbes that Toyota saw a 20% reduction in muscle load.

Lowe’s piloted exoskeletons to help team members more safely lift heavy objects as they stock shelves and move merchandise around stores. 

Making Agriculture Safer: Western Growers Pilots Wearables

Farming is hard work. Long days of planting seeds and harvesting crops can be rough on muscles, joints and ligaments.

Leaders at Western Growers know that all too well. The membership organization represents approximately 2,300 farms growing fresh produce in Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico. 

To identify unsafe body mechanics and prevent injuries, the organization started piloted wearables with its member companies in mid-2018. It specifically measured bending, twisting, walking, sitting, running, jumping, climbing or falling — and used three different wearables to do so.

It deployed a chest harness from StrongArm Technologies that monitors risks and collects data on multiple ergonomic and environmental risk factors.

Meet Sean Petterson, the CEO of StrongArm Technologies, and learn why he’s committed to worker safety through technology and ergonomics.

It implemented a smartbelt from Modjoul that detects a worker’s location, motion and environment to understand behaviors and activities that lead to injuries. The organization also used a pager-like device from Kinetic that sits on a worker’s belt and detects high-risk postures and provides workers with feedback whenever high-risk motions occur. 

With more than 120,000 hours of data on approximately 400 participating workers, Western Growers has been able to identify outliers.

Who is bending more? Who is twisting at a higher degree? Armed with that information, a supervisor can observe a worker and address the issue. 

“Perhaps a worker is twisting more because the tool they have is the wrong length. Perhaps a worker is not bending as much because they had a prior injury. The data gives employers a lot of input to observe, assess and address potential problems,” said Ken Cooper, director of risk strategy at Western Growers.

“That keeps the worker from injuring themselves immediately or over a period of time.”

While Cooper said it’s too early to share specific metrics on declining injuries or claims costs, he said, anecdotally, the wearables program is leading to much safer worker behavior. 

“As a result of these projects, we noticed and observed worker behavior changes from the moment they strap on the devices. There’s just more awareness by the worker. They’re quicker to remember safe movements and change when alerted that they’re doing something dangerous,” said Cooper.

“We’ve also seen operational changes like increased worker rotation so they don’t get fatigued and supervisors who are very engaged in the process. In the short-term, we have seen improvements in claim patterns.”

Wearables for Return-to-Work

Some wearables can help an injured worker get back on the job sooner.

Exoskeletons, incredibly, can help people who’ve suffered spinal cord injuries actually walk, move and get back to work. Still, the costs are incredibly prohibitive. One called Rewalk has been priced at $95,000. It uses a series of motors and sensors to help power hip and knee motion and get people walking again.

As prices go down and the technology becomes more affordable, could such exoskeletons become reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the California Fair Employment and Housing Act?

It’s something to consider, said Mark Webb, owner of Prop 23 Advisors, a consulting firm focusing on workers’ compensation legislative and regulatory issues.

“Is that going to become not just an option but a requirement? It could happen in a larger business where price is less of a consideration or in a workers’ compensation context where that wearable may be determined to be appropriate for return to work. Right now the cost is prohibitive but it may not always be that way.”

Wearables in the Wild

Jeremy Romero, a police officer in the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office in New Mexico, became paralyzed after a car accident. After extensive rehabilitation, he used the Rewalk exoskeleton to not only walk but get back to work six months after the accident.

Privacy and Data Security

It’s no secret that we’re living in an era where data and privacy are top-of-mind. As major social networks and big tech titans struggle to safeguard data, employers collecting data from wearables must still keep that data private.

Employers need to ask themselves some basic questions before implementing a wearable program:

  • What data are the wearables collecting?
  • Where is that data being stored? 
  • Is that storage facility (likely a cloud server) susceptible to a breach?
  • Who gets to see the data?
  • Do workers have access to their own data?

When companies are measuring worker data, they’d better make sure they know where that data is going and how it’s being protected. If it’s flowing into internal cloud servers, those servers need to be encrypted and protected from potential hackers. If it’s being stored on cloud servers owned by a third party vendor, how can an employer ensure that they’re safe and secure?

When the data flows to managers, it may need to be made anonymous first.

Companies have been monitoring worker behavior for years, but typically that’s been done with a clipboard and an observant supervisor.

Turk, from altumAI, argues that behaviors observable to the naked eye — how many times someone bends over, their approximate bending angle — are not as highly protected as biometric data.

“As soon as it’s something that isn’t physically observable like biometrics — heart rate, blood pressure or hydration levels — that’s going to be the big challenge,” said Turk.

He sees a future where companies always get permission from workers to measure such metrics and likely offer some kind of reward in return — like a stipend or a discounted health care plan. 

Legal Liability and Wearables

There are plenty of legal questions around the use of wearables in the workplace. What happens if there’s a malfunction and — for example — a worker wearing an exoskeleton is suddenly bearing the brunt of 300 pounds of weight held over their head? 

“That would create the potential for third-party liability and workers’ compensation exposure,” said Webb.

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Another legal concern is around a worker being on the clock or off the clock. If a wearable is transmitting data during someone’s lunch break or after they go home for the day — are they eligible for overtime pay? California’s Supreme Court recently ruled that Apple must pay store employees for bag and phone checks that were previously done off-the-clock.

Could a strength-enabling system actually promote unintended consequences to the musculoskeletal system — like promoting atrophy long-term? Are there any adverse effects of having the tech so close to the body? If wearables allow one person to do the work of two — does that give an employer a justifiable reason to lay someone off or eliminate a position?

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While the industry matures, those questions will begin to be answered. 

But there are some definitive ways to reduce legal liability right now.

First get opt-in and explicit consent from employees using wearables and offering their data. Also, whenever you’re transmitting data, be sure it’s done in a secure, encrypted, redacted way. And have a plan in place in the case of a security breach. 

Training is also crucial — not just for the individuals using the wearable but also up the food chain at the management level. 

“If you’re getting a report that a worker is not lifting properly and could be at risk for low back strain, management needs to explain that they’re telling the employee this to help them,” said Webb.

“Getting into a position of employee discipline would be counterproductive.” &