The past year has been extremely challenging worldwide, especially for workforces who sacrificed their health and safety to serve others. Technology proved to play a critical role in overcoming many of the world’s challenges during the pandemic. From remote workers utilizing web-based video conferencing instead of face-to-face meetings to teachers conducting lessons in virtual classrooms, it is clear that remote-based solutions will impact lives for many years to come.
As companies adjust to the new way of doing business, they are looking for technology that allows them to engage employees and gather insights to improve processes and maintain their remote workforces’ productivity. Industrial companies are taking this a step further to identify technology that can monitor workers to help protect workers from illnesses and injuries. Technology that can monitor worker’s physiological information can provide valuable insights to prevent workplace injuries.
INCREASED RISK: OUTDOOR WORKFORCES
Workers in many industries across the world, including construction, are exposed to dangerously hot working conditions. Heat-related injuries such as exertional heat stroke, dehydration and even death, are impacting global workforces. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently noted that millions of U.S. workers are exposed to heat stress in their workplace.1 While there are some guidelines related to heat stress exposure upper limits, research has shown that one size does not fit all when it comes to heat stress management.2 Existing guidelines do not consider individualized factors such as age, weight, sex, fitness, medications, and previous medical conditions. In addition, Personal Protective Equipment clothing designed to keep industrial workers safe can increase the danger of heat-related illnesses in hot, humid and even cool work environments.
As the climate changes worldwide, workers who work outside are at higher risk for heat-related injuries. Researchers analyzing the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries identified 285 construction worker deaths directly related to heat from 1992 to 2016. And 78% of those deaths occurred during the hot summer months between June and August.3 As global warming and temperatures rise across the globe, the risk of heat-related deaths is also increasing. Technology that can monitor and predict when workers are at risk can save lives.
WORKER SAFETY: LEVERAGING DATA FROM WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY
Technology and devices that incorporate miniature sensors into wearables such as watches, rings, chest straps and armbands can monitor heart rate, temperature and respiration. This information is usually provided to the user to monitor their vital signs during activities, rest and even sleep. However, by adding additional sensors to monitor environmental conditions like humidity and temperature and information like age, sex, height and weight, these devices can become even smarter.
Advanced algorithms can now be used to analyze each data point to provide an individualized real-time snapshot of not only vital signs but the potential risk for many other health-related illnesses. For example, after the age of 35, the body’s ability to dissipate heat through sweating decreases. As a result, older individuals have higher core body temperatures than younger adults. Algorithms can consider the age difference between individual workers in the same environmental conditions and tailor work and rest recommendations accordingly to prevent heat-related illnesses.
Diseases are another example where previous conditions such as diabetes, psoriasis and cardiovascular disease can impair an individual’s thermoregulation. These individuals may have an elevated core body temperature when working at the same intensity as someone without these ailments. Algorithms can account for the individual factors to better monitor each worker and prevent potential injuries.
Fortunately, many device companies are leveraging their technology and experience to develop solutions to help protect at-risk workers. Wearable, cloud-connected devices that are comfortable for workers can provide real-time safety alerts by monitoring each worker.
One example is continuous monitoring systems that track core body temperature, heart rate and exertion levels. This system uses machine learning and advanced algorithms to analyze millions of physiological data points and individualized user information to provide actionable alerts to prevent heat-related injuries and illnesses. A mobile application alerts the individual worker to privately self-monitor their health from their phone. A web dashboard provides safety managers with a remote worksite view of their team to help monitor and improve safety while reducing risk and increasing team productivity.
Environmental Health and Safety managers use technology to gather insight into the unique safety needs of teams at specific work sites. Machine learning algorithms can identify, adapt and update EHS managers with site-specific changes not easily observed on a day-to-day basis. Recently, Garney Construction, one of the largest water and wastewater construction contractors, utilized these insights to help managers develop new safety processes tailored to Garney’s worksites spread all across the U.S.
Furthermore, researchers have indicated that work capacity and productivity decrease as a result of heat stress.4 Advanced analytics dashboards can provide detailed anonymized information to the workforce. These dashboards break down each data point into easy-to-understand actionable recommendations to guide managers in keeping workers safe while optimizing their productivity.
PROTECTING WORKERS: DATA PRIVACY
As with any monitoring technology, data privacy is critical. Workers, managers and safety personal should only see data needed to protect and prevent worksite injuries and illnesses.
Technology cannot address all workforce dangers, but it can be a powerful tool in addition to worksite training, hazard awareness and oversight. While safety regulations catch up with the constant change and risks faced by global workforces, technology will continue to improve and do its part to help protect workers.
2. Notley, SR, Flouris, AD, Kenny, GP. Occupational heat stress management: Does one size fit all? Am J Ind Med. 2019; 62: 1017– 1023. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajim.22961
3. Dong, XS, West, GH, Holloway‐Beth, A, Wang, X, Sokas, RK. Heat‐related deaths among construction workers in the United States. Am J Ind Med. 2019; 62: 1047‐ 1057. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajim.23024
4. Kjellstrom, Tord et al. “Workplace heat stress, health and productivity – an increasing challenge for low and middle-income countries during climate change.” Global health action vol. 2 10.3402/gha.v2i0.2047. 11 Nov. 2009, doi:10.3402/gha.v2i0.2047
Axelson, O. (1974). Influence of heat exposure on productivity. Work, Environment, Health, 11(2), 94-99. Retrieved January 24, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44376378