Occupational Safety & Health Reporter℠

Worker Safety Gear Developers Move Into the Digital Age

Oct. 21, 2019, 3:51 PM

Wireless technology is moving even the most basic safety gear into the digital age: Sensors in fall protection harnesses can warn workers they’re not hooked in; shirts embedded with heart-rate monitors can alert supervisors when workers must rest; earmuffs designed for hearing protection can notify employees when noises are so loud they should leave.

Companies developing the gear say the equipment will improve safety by warning workers and supervisors quickly about emerging hazards and improve productivity by automating or digitizing safety reports now done on paper.

“In terms of the trends that we are seeing, there is certainly much more prevalence around connectivity,” said Graham Robinson, president of Honeywell Industrial Safety.

Unions and safety professionals agree wireless devices are valuable, but caution against using data from protective gear to measure productivity.

“Short-term monitoring while in a hazardous area is one thing. Being monitored all day while doing your normal job is quite another,” said Mike Wright, safety and health director for the United Steelworkers.

Fall Protection Goes Electronic

Many of the developments take commonplace equipment—such as a retractable cable that stops a worker from falling—and add electronic components.

3M Co. is offering a version of its lifeline cable system with an electronic sensor that can detect when the cable is suddenly jerked forward then braked to a stop, as if a worker had fallen and the cable halted the fall.

Daniel Crosby, a 3M product marketing manager, said the sensor could automatically alert supervisors there was a fall. And because the retraction mechanism must be refurbished after a fall, the alert also tells crews when the gear needs inspection, instead of someone filling out a paper request.

Even the most basic gear can be linked to a monitoring system.

“Part of the challenge with the equipment—whether it was your hard hat, your gloves, or your boots—was determining whether you were wearing the right one,” said Honeywell’s Robinson.

Construction workers installing electrical wiring need different hard hats and gloves than co-workers welding pipes.

Now, radio frequency identification (RFID) chips can be embedded in gear and sensors can track whether workers are wearing the right equipment.

“Walk through a door and you’ll immediately know if that person was wearing the right helmet, safety glasses—right location, right time,” Robinson said.

Many of Honeywell’s initial customers for the sensing system have been oil and gas companies. The company sees broader uses, especially for jobs where employees work by themselves and can’t summon help if they’re injured.

“That’s when minor accidents can become tragic accidents,” said Chris Tipton, Honeywell safety’s senior director for connectivity.

Smartphone Limits

One challenge for connecting safety gear to the internet is designing the equipment to function in harsh environments and ensure the devices’ electrical currents don’t spark an explosion when used in oil and gas facilities, Robinson said. That concern limits the use of smartphones.

Honeywell is developing a wearable wireless hub, called the SenseBox, that works in hazardous conditions and links individual pieces of gear to the employer’s monitoring system.

One of the devices the SenseBox might connect with is a “biometric shirt,” which looks like a sleeveless athletic T-shirt but is embedded with attachments sensing and transmitting a worker’s core temperature, breathing rate, and heart rate.

If the worker’s stress levels become too high, the worker could take a break, or supervisors might tell the worker to stop and recover, said Tipton.

Privacy Concerns

Workers’ advocates raise the alarm about collecting sensitive medical information from these connected devices.

Workers who know they’re being continually watched may become over-stressed from the monitoring itself, the Steelworkers’ Wright said, drawing an analogy to a driver being followed by a police car.

“You may be doing nothing wrong, but if a cop car is following you for miles and miles, it’s stressful,” Wright said. “In the workplace, stress can lead to medical complications, can increase the accident rate, and creates a lousy work environment.”

A December report from the American Society of Safety Professionals concluded that wearable electronic safety devices are helpful for measuring fatigue, leading to fewer accidents and injuries.

Before fielding the devices, the report said, an employer should tell workers how the information will be used and allow workers to opt out or not share their data.

The ASSP report recommended that when employers use the devices, the data collection and monitoring should be done for a short time to answer specific questions, such as how workers interact with a new production line.

The safety group discouraged using the gear to monitor productivity.

Robinson acknowledged privacy and workers’ concerns may delay some employers from adopting the technology, especially in the U.S. where laws limit access to personal health information.

Honeywell is trying to understand the cultural and legal concerns worldwide that make some employers reluctant to field personal monitoring devices, he said.

“We hear those concerns, quite frankly,” Robinson said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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