Wearable devices can provide construction employers with a ton of valuable information about safety and health risks that their employees are contending with in the workplace, including whether an employee is overheating, slowing down or tired, present in a dangerous location or engaging in risky behavior such as sliding down a banister.
Wearables is a catchall term for equipment or a device a construction worker puts on his or her body that gives employers information about behaviors, location and other factors, experts say.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has been studying wearables for several years, according to Scott Ernest, Cincinnati-based deputy director for NIOSH’s Office of Construction Safety and Health. He has narrowed the market down to four categories for study: physiological monitoring, which gauges a worker’s physiological state such as body temperature and fatigue; environmental monitoring, which gauges the environment around the worker; proximity detection, which relies on a global positioning system to monitor locations of workers and proximity to on-site hazards; and ergonomics, which leans toward exoskeleton “suits” that a worker would wear to ensure they are lifting or bending correctly to reduce muscle strains.
“Construction is a hazardous industry,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to minimize those hazards and to prevent workers from getting injured.”
The devices encompass “just about anything you can think” of when it comes to monitoring employees for safety, Gary Kaplan, Chicago based president of construction for the insurer and reinsurer Axa XL, a division of Axa SA.
Wearable devices can curb risky habits such as with one worker who was sliding down a banister to get to the breakroom every day, he said, adding that the discovery led to a supervisor talking to the employee about job site safety.
“I have a company calling me every week about the latest and greatest and why you should pay to have these on your contractor’s (workers),” he said.
“It’s phenomenal how much it is changing and there is such a wide range of what they are and what they can be used for: a lot of very basic things to very advanced,” said James Boileau, Edina, Minnesota-based construction segment director, risk engineering, for Zurich North America.
“Exploding” is a word used by Chubb Ltd.’s Stephen Buonpane, New York-based executive vice president for underwriting with the insurer’s construction practice, when describing the market for wearables in construction.
“There is so much out there,” said Carl Heinlein, a Pittsburgh-based senior safety consultant at the American Contractors Insurance Group who is also on the board of directors for the Park Ridge, Illinois-based American Society of Safety Professionals. “You have to ask yourself what’s your plan and what will benefit you?”
Solving a problem
One in five worker deaths in the United States are in construction, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The leading causes of private-sector worker deaths in the construction industry in 2016 were falls, at 38.7% of construction industry deaths in 2016, followed by the injuries categorized as “struck by object, electrocution, and caught-in/between,” fatalities the bureau describes as that caused by “cave-ins and other hazards of excavation work, body parts pulled into unguarded machinery, standing within the swing radius of cranes and other construction equipment, or caught between equipment and fixed objects.”
Muscle sprains and strains also feature because such injuries caused by lifting and pulling are commonplace, experts say. Heat and environmental injuries caused by chemicals are another issue that wearables can tackle, as some measure body heat, as well as environmental heat and the presence of dangerous chemicals.
“(Wearables) are a solution that cover a wide variety of loss areas,” said Bob Kreuzer, Hartford, Connecticut based vice president of construction risk control at Travelers Cos. Inc. “We ask (our clients) what is the issue you are trying to solve and then look at what’s available in the vendors in the wearables space.”
A contractor could have three separate vendors providing wearables to address three different risks in the workplace, Mr. Kreuzer said, adding that those who want to solve loss problems may be “confused and bombarded” by all the offerings.
The variety of offerings are a concern for employers who “don’t want their workers to look like Christmas trees, wearing a whole bunch of devices,” said John Dony, Itasca, Illinois-based director of the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council, which serves as that organization’s center of environmental health and safety.
Because of the lack of actuarial data on the effects of wearables, insurance representatives say using them has not affected rates.
“If we gave a discount for every risk mitigation there would be no premium left,” said Mr. Kaplan.
‘Geotracking’ a rising star
One of the top products are wearable “geotracking” devices that track workers on a job site, said Mr. Heinlein, adding “it’s almost like air traffic control for a job site.”
One such device is clipped to a worker’s vest or belt, which can tell a project manager where a worker is located.
Some devices can track falls — when a worker descends in elevation — as was the case with the worker jokingly sliding down a banister, or whether a worker is located near heavy equipment, alerting them to the risk of being run over or hit with a vehicle or machinery, or that a ledge is nearby.
Such products can act as “digital fencing,” which can keep workers out of areas of a job site they are not supposed to be or trained to be, said Mr. Dony.
“It’s organized chaos” on a construction site, said Mr. Buonpane. “There are a lot of things going on (and) the work changes day in and day out so having the ability to know, with the click of a button, where everybody is, is a big advance.”
Pete Schermerhorn, Norwalk, Connecticut-based president and chief executive officer for Triax Technologies Inc., which began marketing geo-trackers in 2017, said the company’s wearable, battery-operated clip-on devices are being used in ongoing pilot programs with at least 25 large construction firms. The devices cost about $100 per clip-on with $1,000 to $2,000 per month in networking costs, depending on the size of the project, he said.
“Think about an active construction site, where the building is constantly changing and there might not be power, and you have a relatively chaotic environment, with different tradesmen going in different directions,” he said. “(This) gives you worker identity and location and time in attendance… that’s critical in that chaotic environment.”