Millions of employees in the UK are wearing fitness devices on a regular basis. As modern developments continue at a rapid speed it could be that the trend towards wearable devices to monitor worker health and behaviour could be the next big thing to boost worker wellbeing — or an Orwellian nightmare waiting to happen.
In January 2017, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published its latest horizon scanning report to help employers consider potential future risks for organisations and what rapid developments in science and technology could mean for the health and safety of workers in Britain.
The report highlighted wearable health and safety as one of its key themes to watch, pointing out that as devices become smaller, they can be used to monitor the body’s vital signs as well as to indicate potential health and safety risks.
Under the overarching theme of the digital revolution and the changing face of work, the report noted that as smart devices gradually become smaller and more robust, there is increasing potential for a range of applications to open up.
The HSE’s report has noted that smart devices including badges, glasses, watches and mobile phones are already being used in work settings such as offices, retail, warehousing, manufacturing, healthcare and construction. Similarly, smart clothing such as gloves, helmets and shoes are also being introduced to workplaces, along with a very wide range of novel devices including smart contact lenses and temporary tattoos (stickers attached to the skin) containing tiny cameras, sensors and antennae. In addition, smart furniture and equipment are also available.
Smart technology will increasingly be used in workplaces and homes to gather and analyse health data on stress, fatigue, temperature, respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, calories burned, activity intensity and sleep patterns.
Practical examples: wellness, safety, productivity
Currently, a variety of available wristbands such as Fitbits, the Microsoft Band, PulseOn, Samsung’s Gear S2 and Apple Watches have made it very easy for employees to track the amount of exercise they are getting throughout the day. These devices can keep a record of heart rates, the amount of calories burned and the number of steps taken throughout the day. The bands can also give the wearer information on weight changes, how much sleep they’re getting and its quality and the food they’re eating.
Then looking at the safety side, a wide range of intelligent wearable equipment is also available. For example, recently Honeywell, the industrial safety company, announced a new range of connected worker software and wearables aimed at boosting both safety and productivity.
The functionality of these devices is impressive. For example, Honeywell’s ConneXt Lone worker device is a wireless clip-on monitor which combines cloud-based software with gas detection technology, while keeping workers and safety managers connected through cellular or satellite networks. Safety managers can see the location of the worker in real time and also receive man-down alerts, communicate through two-way text messages and receive other information on detector status and any vehicles involved.
As another example, drivers and their supervisors around the world are using the SmartCap, developed by the Australian company of the same name, to monitor their fleets online and get real time information on drivers’ alertness levels. The SmartCap looks like an ordinary baseball cap but includes a band for electroencephalogram (EEG) monitoring to predict levels of fatigue based on brain information. As a result, the cap can predict the alertness or fatigue of the worker wearing the cap in advance, with the information communicated to ensure the safety of the driver and other road users.
On the other hand, smart data which is used by the employers in an unfair or discriminatory way could cause all sorts of problems, including the potential for increased work-related stress. Certainly, stress in the workplace cannot be left out of a discussion about wearable health and safety. Technology can even monitor sound waves to identify how stressed workers are when they speak but commentators have raised concerns that technology of this kind could be used to spy on individual employees, prompting controversial questions as to how such technology is used at work.
With increasing evidence of the health benefits of moving, the case for incorporating smart devices into wellness programmes seems compelling. Similarly, the argument for using wearable health and safety devices to reduce the risks faced by workers in hazardous locations can be convincing too.
Taking part in these sort of health and welfare schemes is voluntary but workers may experience social and workplace incentives to share their personal data, including data from outside work. Employers may use people’s emotional responses, such as a desire to be “one of the team” to encourage participation by those who are reluctant to sign up. Supporters of wearable technology argue that many workers will be willing to share their data as long as they will get some benefit in return.
Questions need to be asked about how best to guard against any invasion of employee privacy and how to protect personal health data. Employers will also need to prevent unfair or discriminatory treatment of employees. Employees may feel pressure to conform to desirable health and fitness characteristics in order to keep up with team-based personal health initiatives led by the workplace. Moreover, policies and employment contracts will no doubt need to be updated.