Wearable Technology: A New Frontier in PPE
August 02, 2021
We’ve all heard of fitness trackers, smartwatches, and body cameras. But did you know that other forms of wearable tech are trending in recent years? In fact, the market for smart personal protective equipment (PPE) has been predicted to grow 1.85 billion between 2020 and 2024, according to a report by Technavio. From stick-on wearables designed to detect and prevent assault, to glucose and asthma monitors for those at risk, wearable technology is slowly gaining a steady following.
More importantly for business owners, wearable technology is quickly becoming accepted in the workplace as an excellent way to protect employees. This promising new form of personal protective equipment (PPE) can include “smart” vests, wristbands, helmets, hardhats, clothing, glasses, or shoes. Wearable tech can help to monitor employees’ health on the job, protect them from workplace hazards, collect data, and improve safety training methods in various industries.
Health hazards abound in many workplaces, and wearables promise to mitigate these hazards. For example, in climates where workers are at risk for heatstroke or other heat-related illness, smart tech sensors that monitor employees’ internal body temperature can alert them to take precautions when they are in danger of overheating. Some of these sensors can also interface with the cooling or heating elements to adjust the temperature of an indoor work environment.
Other wearable sensors can detect UV radiation, monitor heart rate variability, and measure breathing volume and other biometric signs. Smart glasses and other wearables can even detect sleepiness, and a study by the ASSP has shown that they can enable wearers to respond appropriately to fatigue. Some smart glasses can even display monitored information on the corner of a lens, so that workers will know when to take proper precautions.
Besides monitoring a worker’s health, wearable tech can recognize or prevent hazardous events from occurring in the workplace. They serve a diverse number of purposes:
- Proximity warning sensors can set off an alarm or a visual warning when a worker is too close to a potentially hazardous piece of machinery or area of a worksite.
- Sensors can detect environmental hazards, such as gas, chemicals, or nearby impacts, and can notify supervisors of these hazards.
- A hard hat can include a 3D visual display on the visor that gives the worker a 360-degree view of the surrounding area.
- Smart glasses, hard hats, and other PPE can sound an alarm if a worker enters a hazardous area without wearing them appropriately.
- Similarly, smart gloves can contain NFC chips that work like swipe cards, ensuring that workers are wearing them before accessing dangerous chemicals or compounds. They can also give workers information on these hazardous substances and prevent them from cross-contamination.
- Chips embedded in boots or other footwear can detect slip hazards or other dangerous conditions.
- Gloves can incorporate 3D gesture technology, enabling workers to control devices in hazardous environments without coming into physical contact with them.
- Wearables can also be used for safety training, enabling workers to practice safety procedures in a controlled, fictional environment.
Besides delivering monitored information to a supervisor in the moment, smart wearables can also generate data to give managers a broader perspective on site conditions or ongoing health/safety issues. While gas monitors, for example, have been in use for years, their conversion to smart monitors enables reports to be viewed in retrospect, which can help managers to pinpoint problems and maintain a safer working environment.
As is true with most tech, the advantages of wearable tech devices are accompanied by disadvantages that make their use in the workplace somewhat controversial.
The primary concern is privacy. Employees often feel that they have no control over where their data is being sent, and may therefore feel that monitoring is overly intrusive. They may feel that the devices’ primary goal is to monitor productivity, rather than safety and health. This is why employers often emphasize that the goal in introducing this technology is to improve workplace safety, rather than pry into workers’ minute-to-minute activity.
A secondary concern is cost. Although the price of these wearable devices is continually dropping, it can still be high for many companies. When compared to the cost of a work-related injury, however, wearables may be worth the price.
Other minor concerns include user error and overdependence on the devices. For example, workers who rely on their wearables to notify them of any hazards may put less effort into noticing hazards themselves. This is why providing training with these devices is essential before introducing them to a workforce.
With many employers considering the advantages of smart devices, it is easy to see why using technology to ensure the health and safety of workers is so tempting. Over the next few years, the benefits of wearable tech may change the way we view employee protection, taking the place of current PPE and making workplaces safer than ever.