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Wearable Technology in Construction: The Promise and the Perils

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Many millions of workers in the United States are primarily based “in the field,” not tethered to any desk. (One wearable technology startup, APX Labs, estimates there are 40 million such workers.)

About 6.6 million of them are working at roughly 252,000 construction sites, according to the United States Department of Labor.

Accidents at construction jobsites account for nearly 20 percent of all work-related fatalities and injuries, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and occur at higher rates than in other industries.

Smart devices with sensors, microprocessors and transmitters embedded in standard attire like glasses, safety vests, hardhats, and gloves, show promise in not only increasing worker safety, but job site efficiency.

Such wearable technology is a growing industry. Travelers took note of a recent SNS Research report, which found that wearable device shipments accounted for nearly $20 billion in revenue in 2015, an amount expected to grow 40 percent over the next six years.

The construction industry is just starting to consider the possibilities of wearables, but as with all technology, risk is part of the equation, as is skepticism on the front lines. Taking steps to both mitigate risk and increase worker buy-in of any new technology roll out can help ensure safety and success.

Measuring the Promise

Wearable devices in the construction industry can allow workers to give and receive real-time updates on projects in a hands-free manner. Smart glasses can help workers look at a building plan, for example, from the precise angle at which they are standing, leading to greater accuracy.

Other developers are including aspirating smoke detectors in buildings, which routinely inhale and monitor the air, taking a proactive approach to fire prevention. A hardhat could be fitted with a pulse oximeter that could detect dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. This kind of active safety measure could improve morale, as well as safety and health. 

This kind of wearable technology also makes it easier to monitor job sites remotely.

Handling the Perils

Wearable technology requires a solid approach to managing the risks inherent with these devices, such as distraction. Like a driver eager to check that new text, a construction worker could become distracted by the device. Particularly for those working on dangerous sites, safety training on any new technology must occur. In all cases, it is important to limit the functionality of wearables to just the task at hand.

Some workers are tech-phobic and will resist any wearable device. But this kind of behavior usually results from fear of the unknown. This can be overcome with education and explanation of the benefits — how the device will make work life safer and easier. Age shouldn’t be a factor anymore — the fastest growing cohort on Facebook is those over age 55, and most everybody is now swiping a smartphone.

Others may worry about “Big Brother” watching. Again, education can help show that the technology is about improving safety. How you position the promise of the technology is often how it will be understood. With education and usage, a safety vest that warns highway workers of oncoming traffic will feel just as standard to a worker as hardhats and orange cones do today.

Understanding the Risks

Travelers has a reputation for insuring what other carriers will not, so it is not a surprise that this insurance provider is at the forefront of risk management best practices for wearable tech.

The company breaks down wearable technology risks into three categories: cyber, bodily injury and errors and omissions. In the construction world, bodily injury is of particular concern, followed by errors and omissions.

Travelers advises companies introducing wearable technology to “provide users with clear, unambiguous written instructions on the full range of use for wearable products.”

“Include visual depictions of proper device use,” the Travelers experts note. “Provide warnings on types of use that should be avoided, with a focus on potential key hazards. Incorporate information on proper device storage and transportation, as well as instructions on what to do if the device malfunctions.”

If you are considering adopting any sort of wearable device for your workers, talk to us about how we can help mitigate your risk.

Material posted on this website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute a legal opinion or medical advice. Contact your legal representative or medical professional for information specific to your legal or medical needs.

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