Improving worker safety with wearables

By | 4 minute read | June 23, 2016

According to the International Labor Organization every 15 seconds, 151 workers have a work-related accident. The global number of non-fatal occupational accidents reaches a staggering 317 million, annually. Even more concerning, 321,000 people die each year from occupational accidents. Work accidents remain a huge, cross-industry problem, despite safety regulations and procedures.

Even a non-fatal injury can have a potentially devastating effect on an employee’s health and livelihood. For employers, in addition to the distress of an employee suffering from injury, work accidents affect productivity, and companies can suffer significant financial losses. In the United States alone, workplace injuries and illnesses cost employers more than $220 billion annually, with 27 million working days lost per year. These rising costs are also hurting insurance companies and influencing coverage rates.

The good news is that advances in IoT technology is giving rise to the connected worker – a worker who is more aware of, and sensed by, their environment is inherently safer. Wearable and embedded sensors are making it possible for workers to be monitored within their surroundings to prevent injury from falls, overexertion, heavy machinery – the list of what wearables allow us to prevent is a lengthy one. Wearable technology taps into the Internet of Things for gathering, integrating and analyzing sensor data, and when coupled together with innovative cognitive capabilities and external sources like environment and weather, we see enormous potential for better managing health, wellness and safety to truly help transform the way we live and work today.

IBM and North Star Bluescope Steel

North Star Bluescope Steel, a steel producer for global building and construction industries for Australia, New Zealand and North American markets, is working with IBM to develop a cognitive platform that taps into IBM Watson Internet of Things technology for wearable safety technology to help employees stay safer in dangerous environments. By gathering and analyzing sensor data collected from sensors embedded in helmets and wrist bands, the technology, IBM Employee Wellness and Safety Solution, provides real-time alerts to employees and their managers, enabling preventive measures if physical well-being is compromised or safety procedures are not being followed.

Although certain wearable sensors such as fitness bracelets exist to provide individual solutions, the IBM research project offers a platform that can be customized and extends the power of cognitive computing to collect and analyze information from a group of many sensors. By bringing this information together and analyzing what’s really going on around the employee, the solution can detect even hazardous combinations that individually may be overlooked. For example, a combination of skin temperature, raised heart rate, and no movement patterns for several minutes could mean a person is suffering from heat stress. Each of these signs individually would not be a cause for alert, but together they indicate a serious situation that warrants intervention.

The majorities of workplace injuries are easily preventable through monitoring worker status. Injuries can be prevented, whether by ensuring that protective equipment is used correctly, or that time or location limitations for hazardous situations are monitored. Integrating and presenting contextual information to field workers from a wide variety of sensors creates more aware and well informed workers. It’s a method that is non-intrusive, hands-free, always-on, environment-aware, and offers the direct delivery of critical information to those who need it, when they need it.

“Through the use of the IBM Employee Wellness and Safety Solution, we have observed an increased awareness of heat stress and exertion in our trial users,” said Malcolm Edge, I.T. Director, NorthStar Bluescope Steel. “The solution has provided a proof of concept showcasing how data can flow from the user to the IBM Watson IoT Platform and back to a supervisor for intervention. This solution, once fully developed, will provide a solid foundation for increasing worker safety by providing real time monitoring of the environment around the worker.”

In an effort to combat heat stress, Northstar is using the IBM Employee Wellness and Safety Solution to collect data from various sensors that continuously monitor the worker’s skin body temperature, heart rate, galvanic skin response and level of activity, correlated with sensor data for ambient temperature and humidity. The solution then enables Northstar to provide personalized safety guidelines to each individual employee, advising them to take a 10 minute break in the shade, if temperatures rise to unsafe levels.

The same platform can be used to prevent excessive exposure to different temperatures, radiation levels, noise, or toxic gases, using sensor tags for temperature, humidity, noise, or light measurements. Gases can be detected using personal sensors enabled using Wifi or Bluetooth low energy sensors.

Connected workers are not only inherently safer, but monitoring for more than scenarios that could cause injury can also lead to more productive workers. Monitoring workers can help implement measures that lead to less fatigue, less time spent on unnecessary tasks, and more time focused on the most critical tasks.

The project with Northstar Bluescope Steel was developed as part of the IBM First-Of-a-Kind program, which brings together IBM researchers and clients to test new technologies on real business problems and growth opportunities. Learn more about how cognitive IoT is transforming industrial asset management processes, worker health and safety and more with this free ARC analyst report: Optimize Asset Performance with Industrial IoT and Analytics.