By Kyle Hubregtse
“Technology is taking us all over” is the most prolific comment I’ve heard lately, most recently from a crew member on a construction jobsite in the southeastern United States. When introducing wearable safety technology, EHS managers must employ knowledge, listening, and patience.
It’s true that technology has permeated many aspects of our life. It’s now commonplace to have new technology in our pockets and on the limbs of our bodies as our interests in convenience, productivity, health, and well-being increase. The early days of counting steps or calories were engaging, but technology has evolved significantly since then. Now, physiological data can be captured and analyzed in real time to promote peak performance and predict adverse health events, promoting interventions to change the course of a potential health risk. Such technical devices are increasingly being used by companies to monitor workers to increase safety and productivity. The power of health data is bringing valuable benefits to both individuals and their employers.
The choice to use a wearable device that measures and tracks personal health data is easier when wearers have confidence that the data the body is creating are safe and secure. But what happens when the choice isn’t necessarily their own? Smart wearables as personal protective equipment (PPE) are emerging on worksites, and when workers are mandated to wear the technology by their employers, many times, the first question from a worker is: “Are my personal data safe?” This is followed by questions such as “Where do my data go?” or “Who is watching me and my data?” and “Why is the company monitoring me?” These questions must be addressed and taken seriously … over and over again.
Consider that even worksite supervisors may have apprehension, given they are also employees and likely will be wearing the same or similar technology. They, too, may have certain on-site duties that cause stress on the body, even if those duties don’t involve heavy labor. By simply managing on-site in extreme environmental conditions, such as high heat and/or humidity, managers’ health data may also be collected and used to inform enhanced prevention and intervention procedures.
Clearly communicating how technology works; the benefits it provides to both the individual and the company; and the routing, visibility, storage, and deletion of data is vital at the onset of the use of any wearable technology. This information will need to be provided regularly to increase confidence and comfort with the technology and maximize its use and value.
Typically, during the early adoption stages, a common sentiment may arise among the workforce about technology in general taking over activities typically done by a worker or technology otherwise interfering with the work. Early adoption of any new technology causes apprehension, which can be addressed, again, through clear and consistent communications. Once technology starts to prove its value and concerns are allayed through its use, acceptance levels improve.
Industrial safety technology keeps workers safer on the job. In the unfortunate case of an incident, when technology plays a role in a positive outcome—such as preventing an injury or saving a life—technology champions on the team will come forward. There is a strong culture among teams on a jobsite; everyone looks out for each other. When technology protects a worker from harm, it converts skeptics into believers and behaviors toward the technology become more supportive. Technology champions are helpful because they educate their coworkers and encourage compliance. Health-monitoring wearable technology fits particularly well within this group culture, where people are used to watching out for each other’s well-being. One person seeing another faltering is an informal backup system to the technology, which alerts the worker when his or her body is stressed. If the person under stress tries to push through the work and disregard warnings from the device to stop, it’s likely another worker will intervene and encourage the distressed worker to pay attention to the warnings and rest.
As any safety manager knows, it’s easier to make changes to procedures in collaboration with your workforce, not against them. This is particularly true with the integration of new technology. Start with an open mind and a will to listen, respond, and learn more, and communicate if you don’t have all the answers at first. Be proactive about asking workers of different experiences and perspectives if they’re nervous or apprehensive about the change and why. Know as much as you can about the problems that are being addressed with the change. In the case of health-monitoring technology, it will be important to understand the physiological factors of the body that are being monitored and why they trigger interventions. These include heart rate and core body temperature. It’s also important to remember that everybody is different, so situations will vary for every worker. Some will acclimatize more quickly to heat and humidity, for example, and some will have certain health conditions that require a work-rest schedule unique to their body. Knowing the information makes it easier to educate, encourage, and respond to questions and feedback from workers. This elicits greater trust in the technology and the reasons it is being used by the company.