Plant & Works Engineering
Wearable technology
Published:  15 August, 2017

Whether it’s smart watches or fitness trackers, e-textiles or connected eyewear, wearables have entered the mainstream and taken consumer markets by storm. Such devices come with a host of practical functions, interweaving cutting-edge technology into our daily lives. Cleo Cabuz, vice president of engineering, Honeywell Industrial Safety, looks at the key to a safer and more productive workplace.

The trend towards wearables is also starting to make an impact in industrial sectors. Within health and safety, the latest generation of personal protective equipment (PPE) now comes with advanced levels of connectivity. Intelligent harnesses that monitor a worker’s temperature and blood pressure to gauge stress levels and make this vital information accessible to safety managers via wireless connectivity are already a reality. So what is driving this advance in wearable technology and, perhaps more importantly, what will this mean for the health and safety workforce of the future?

The move towards wearable, connected technology hasn’t happened overnight. Over the last 30 years, the development of low-power, miniaturised sensors and electronics combined with high-energy density batteries has made it possible to create safety devices that can run for a 12-hours shift. Whilst this technology has been around for a while, it wasn’t until very recently that a boom in wearable technology started to drive the cost of miniaturised electronics down. In parallel, connectivity has become extremely accessible and powerful. As a result, this technology has become increasingly popular in the industrial space too.

What has changed dramatically in recent years, however, is the mindset of workers. Workers are also consumers and their level of acceptance of wearable technology has increased as it has become part of their daily lives. This means that pyschological barriers to using wearables at work are falling and, in fact, quite the opposite is happening. Increasingly, the workers themselves expect the technology they are given at work to be similar to what they’re using at home.

By adapting this technology to the demands of the work environment, manufacturers of safety equipment are developing devices that offer the same ease-of-use as consumer technology but without the risks that this would entail. For example, people operating in explosive atmospheres can now use hazardous area-certified smartphones via a cellular network. Honeywell’s recent experience with customers shows that, thanks to this approach, even in industries that have been arguably quite conservative in the uptake of new technology, more companies are starting to demand portable gas detection and safety systems with wireless connectivity.

Another important driver behind the development of wearables is the growing awareness of the importance of raising safety standards in the industrial space. Major industrial accidents have led more and more companies to reassess their health and safety strategies. This is not only vital to protect the workforce, but is also an effective way for companies to differentiate themselves from their competitors, enhance their reputation and become more attractive to the best talent.

Besides improving safety and competitive advantage, awareness of occupational health has also been on the rise. Every year there are 160 million cases of non-fatal work-related diseases [1] and knowledge of the many and often invisible threats to which workers are exposed is growing. For example, employers want to be able to detect concentrations of harmful substances such as silica dust, hydrogen sulphide or volatile organic compounds even below the thresholds that may be deemed safe by regulations. This is because they are aware that even relatively low-level threats could potentially harm the health of their workers in the long run.

There are many different ways in which the latest wearable technology can help employers raise safety standards while tackling occupational diseases. Portable, wearable gas detectors are the most popular technology of this kind, with some of the latest models able to operate continuously for two years without the need to change sensors or charge batteries. Combining wireless portable gas detectors with location data and software allows safety managers to remotely monitor worker exposure to toxic gases, oxygen deficiency, flammable gases, particulates, radiation and other hazards instantly, and over time.

Besides exposure to gas, wearable technology can also help tackle previously neglected conditions such as noise induced hearing loss (NIHL), one of the most commonly reported work-related injuries globally [2]. By integrating smart, wearable sensors with cutting-edge software and cloud-based services, the latest technology enables safety managers and workers to measure and monitor noise exposure in real-time.

Motion monitoring is another important area where wearable technology can make a difference. For example, most of the latest portable gas detectors now include man-down alarms that enable safety managers to make better decisions on how to rescue workers and potentially evacuate others that might be at risk. Today, it is even possible to capture information on gestural communication thanks to sensors embedded in PPE. Take a first responder, a firefighter or a SWAT officer stepping into a dangerous situation: if they needed to communicate vital information back to the control room at the station but couldn’t do it vocally, their wearable technology would enable them to use gestures instead.

Wearable technology can even help prevent falls, which remain the No. 1 cause of occupational fatalities in many countries, including the UK [3]. For example, sensors embedded in a harness that is attached to a self-retracting lifeline can trigger an automatic system that pulls the worker backwards if they are stepping too close to an edge.

All these connected, wearable technologies are also enabling a new concept of safety: automated safety. Today, safety managers have to ensure that workers are regularly trained, often for three or four different hazard areas. They also need to inspect the PPE and other safety equipment they are using regularly, to ensure this is compliant and up-to-date. Keeping track of all this information manually carries a high tag in terms of cost and time.

Automating this process through connected safety solutions that integrate radio-frequency identification (RFID), sensors, software and cloud technology, now enables safety managers to access vast streams of data. This information can be used to assess, at a glance, whether workers have the right training in the use of their PPE and that this equipment is up to date in terms of regulatory compliance, well-maintained and fit for purpose.

The integration of Quick Response codes into PPE enables the worker themselves to immediately view essential information on their industrial smartphones such as check-lists on the use of equipment. Industrial smartphones can also be interrogated to access instructions. The latest generation of workers are used to finding the information they need through mobile devices and it is vital to enable them to do so in the workplace.

Honeywell expects the use of wearable technology will grow dramatically in the coming years, to a point where it will become inconceivable that a worker does not use it. The PPE industry – presently a $27 billion market – is due to expand as vast emerging markets such as China and India start to enforce stricter health and safety regulations. At the same time, many multinational companies opening new facilities in such regions are implementing the same safety strategies they would implement in their countries of origin, thus driving health and safety standards up. Wearable, connected technology has an important role to play in this fundamental shift to a safer and more productive work environment.