AI & wearables in the workplace, predicting the future & a crazy ironman suit in the highest risk industry in the USA
If you have attended a safety conference recently you may have noticed that wearable technologies have become an increasingly popular space with respect to worker safety. Everything from computer vision tools such as www.deepcanopy.com, to wireless sensors tools like www.dorsavi.com, to exoskeletons like http://en.laevo.nl/ are finding ways to assist corporations to provide a more efficient & safe workforce.
While these technologies are increasingly relevant, there is a large degree of confusion about how to best utilize these technologies to help corporations achieve their organizational goals. I recently was part of a round-table discussion at a global safety conference where an EH&S executive from a Fortune 100 organization said “I have found that many of these tools make sense, but building a business case for them can be tricky”. As an organization who has been on the front lines of integrating these technologies for the past 5 years, it is a bit discouraging that large organizations continue to struggle to understand how to operationalize tools that can produce such great results for their people. As I pondered the comment more over the course of the next few days, it became apparent that there needs to be more discussion on how to best utilize some of these tools to make a difference in our respective industries. So, I decided to address a few common questions that we have addressed with our partner organizations as we have successfully integrated technology into the workplace and have been able to demonstrate quantifiable return for our partners.
WHAT ARE WEARABLES IN THE WORKPLACE?
Nearly 5 years ago I wrote a post on LinkedIn asking my network to clarify the human resource risks associated with wearable technology in the workplace. The comments that I got were surprising and extremely varied. At that time, the general thought process of the groups centered on High Visibility Clothing & updated PPE. Much has changed in the last 5 years and the majority of people in the safety industry are familiar with wearable technology. However, this definition is still exceptionally broad. We have broken down Wearable Tech into 3 main buckets that we utilize independently &often times together:
- Exoskeletons: external supports that can be powered or non-powered, that attempt to improve the efficiency of the person who is wearing the device. These suits aim to reduce physical constraints on the worker who wears them. These suits are most frequently used in industry where repetitive lifting & repetitive overhead work is difficult to engineer the risk out of the process.
- Sensors for alerting to potential exposures: These are devices that are a part of the employees PPE and will alert the employee (or occasionally the tool itself) of potential hazards. For example wearable carbon monoxide sensors in the mining industry, or heat exposure sensors for construction workers in hot climates.
- Sensors for quantifying ergonomics: Current technology is capable of measuring, monitoring and providing real-time feedback to workers related to body position and ergonomic risk factors. These tools provide objective data in dynamic measurements that are capable of analyzing all facets of a job.
WHY ARE WEARABLE TECHNOLOGIES VALUABLE?
Simply put, they enhance our capabilities to reduce risk & improve efficiency. These tools provide the capabilities to monitor, give instant feedback, guide decision-making & even impact productivity when utilized effectively. In a world that is dominated by lean manufacturing, it extends the reach of a EH&S Team that is often over-worked and understaffed. These tools provide data to guide decisions, they reduce the risk of exposures and provide secondary checks & balances to keep our people safe from exposures. Further, they provide tools that allow for dynamic measurements of an entire system in real-time, as opposed to traditional tools that rely on static measurements. The data that we receive allows EH&S professionals to make more informed decisions to keep their people safe in the workplace.
HOW DO WE BEST DESIGN A PROGRAM?
An effective wearable program begins & ends with proper design. Just because we assume an intervention will improve the process…does not in fact mean that it will. We have multiple examples of a solution being proposed by a supplier/vendor for a new device that when put through proper screening did not achieve the intended result. Without proper design these interventions would have ultimately been expensive gadgets that did not help the organization achieve their goals. Even worse, they create the cultural mountain to climb the next time you want resources from finance.
We have had the most success developing a 2-step process:
- Does the proposed intervention help us achieve our organizational goals & why?
- Integrate the scientific method (research past outcomes, hypothesize solutions, test your hypothesis & analyze the data).
The key component of this process is step-1. We are all humans and can get distracted by shiny things. As a result, there are often things that look like they can be helpful, but if they do not align with our organizational goals, then they become a distraction. As safety professionals, tying our objectives to the overall objectives of the company will help us validate our decisions and improve our senior leaders responsiveness to funding our initiatives.
Phase-2 is the process that allows us to critically think about how we are going to measure the effectiveness of our interventions. This requires us to plan out key performance indicators and ultimately allow for quantifiable information that will either prove, or potentially disprove, our hypothesis. An example of using this process can be seen in a grant we did with the State of Washington in the logging industry. Our initial hypothesis was that integrating exoskeletons on timber cutters would help reduce the risk to the most dangerous trade in the continental USA. Working through the scientific method created the framework for measuring the exoskeleton with wireless sensors measuring muscle activity and body position. Ultimately the results demonstrated that the increased physical demand on the worker wearing the suit in the brush reduced the benefits that the suit delivered. The ability to make this decision was founded in proper design of a project.
(This project can be viewed on Washington State’s Labor & Industry website: http://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/GrantsPartnerships/SHIP/awardees/ChiltonLoggingWorkRightDorsaVi/dorsaViViSafeChiltonLoggingfinalammendments122017.pdf )
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?
Predicting the future is patently impossible. However, looking at the progression of technology in the consumer world has typically proven to be an effective predictor of where the occupational world will go. For example, FitBit came long before wearable sensors in the workplace. Similarly, exoskeletons were first developed for medical disabilities (i.e. lower extremity paralysis) and then were introduced into the occupational setting.
Using this method of logic, we are likely to see the role of computer vision and artificial intelligence to become more prominent in industry. Finding ways to blend these technologies to better prepare our workforce to perform safely will continue to evolve and develop.
Another consumer trend is technology that interfaces directly with the end user (i.e. general population). Opportunities in this space may communicate directly with the workforce and blend personal health risk factors with occupational safety helping us more effectively provide for the wellness of our workforce, rather than dividing resources into the HR/benefits resources & the OccHealth bucket. These are all potentials areas of opportunity, that need to be designed appropriately to ensure that they are addressing organizational goals, but I do believe demonstrate potential for continued improvement in workplace health & safety.