Wearable technologies are an increasingly popular consumer electronic for a variety of applications at home and at work. In general, these devices include accessories and clothing that incorporate advanced electronic technologies, often with smartphone or ‘internet of things’ (IoT) connectivity. While wearables are increasingly being used to improve health and well-being by aiding in personal fitness, innovative applications for monitoring occupational safety and health risk factors are becoming more common. Many of these devices have reached the market while others are still in development. As more wearables become available, they have the potential to positively impact and alter the landscape of society and work as we know it [Awolusi et al 2018].
Construction sites are dynamic environments with unique and often hazardous working conditions that can change daily and throughout the life of a project. Nearly 20% of all work-related fatalities in any given year occur on construction sites, yet the industry only hires about six percent of the U.S. workforce [CPWR 2018]. These environments frequently expose workers to extreme temperatures, loud noises, poor air quality, and job-related tasks are regularly performed in close quarters. Often, heavy construction equipment is operating in proximity to ground workers, creating potential hazards for collisions between workers and construction vehicles [CPWR 2018]. The temporary nature of construction sites and project organization make the use of many standard industrial monitoring systems impractical. These and other factors are creating a growing demand for wearable technologies.
Wearable technology is beginning to be developed, tested, and used for a variety of applications in construction. For example, proximity detection and alert systems, used as a wearable technology, are reliable and effective and have the potential to warn workers on the ground or operating equipment when moving hazards such as heavy construction equipment is near. Physiological status monitors can reliably collect worker data in the outdoor environment and warn about the potential for heat stress. Environmental sensors can be used to monitor air quality, including carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, gas leaks, temperature, humidity, and noise. Exoskeletons can be used for reducing the mechanical stress of manual labor. (See related blog).
Wearable devices and the related sensors are now available in many forms including clothing, watches, helmets and eyewear. Advances in miniaturized sensors and wireless technologies are permitting a new generation of protective equipment to become reality. These types of devices have been used to reduce exposures to hazardous conditions. A few examples follow:
- By combining sensors with location or video information, specific work tasks can be evaluated as a potential source of exposure. Direct-reading and sensor technologies can monitor exposure to harmful chemicals or substances and empower workers to have a better understanding of their work environment (EVADE video on YouTube channel). These technologies can help workers, employers, and supervisors reduce harmful workplace exposures and become active partners in preventing occupational illnesses and injuries.
- A worker wearing an exoskeleton can reduce the physical load on their body and potentially prevent some musculoskeletal disorders. In a study of forward bend lifting using an exoskeleton intended to decrease spine loading and improve posture, researchers found that exoskeletons decrease total work, fatigue and load while also improving posture [NIOSH 2016; NIOSH 2019]. In addition to decreasing load on the spine, exoskeletons are able to decrease shoulder discomfort while increasing productivity and work quality in painters and welders. (See related blog).
- A worker wearing a proximity sensor can be notified if a piece of heavy equipment is approaching him. Likewise, smart vehicles can monitor workers in their vicinity [Narla 2013].
Additionally, active monitoring of physiological data with wearable technologies may allow for the measurement of heart rate, breathing rate, and posture [Nath et al 2017]. This type of real-time information can help workers actively monitor their bodies’ response to the work environment and its demands. Among other engineering application areas, automatically monitoring the location and movement of people can be useful for safety, security, and process analysis. When used on worksites, wearable devices are often connected to a wireless mesh infrastructure via an IoT network. This network is the backbone of the system, and allows for integration of the physical world into the network. The IoT network can also be connected to a computer for monitoring and analytics. This set-up allows for messaging, warnings, and alarms in addition to monitoring location.
NIOSH continues to work on wearable technologies that have applications to construction, as well as other industry sectors. Much of NIOSH’s past research in this area has addressed the use of wearables for evaluating personal exposure to airborne contaminants. Work continues in this area, and the research often involves a progression of steps from small hand portable devices involving discrete electronics to wearables. For example, in some cases tools can be miniaturized, but they may not be wearable yet. Making devices small and functional enough to be worn can in many cases take considerable time. NIOSH research topics that are relevant include personal dust monitors such as the continuous personal dust monitor (CPDM), direct reading welding fume instruments [Diwakkar et al. 2012] and end of shift silica measurement [Lee et al. 2017]; as well as, development of a lab-on-a-chip for silica exposure [Upaassana et al. 2019]. These technologies and applications are promising and have the potential to have benefits that could positively transform the industry. Many of these devices can be integrated into existing wellness programs to support a Total Worker Health® approach to safety.
The NIOSH National Construction Center – CPWR has conducted research on wearable warning systems and embedded safety communication devices to protect workers from struck-by incidents related to vehicle movement and intrusions in construction work zones [CPWR 2019]. NIOSH has also conducted research on tag-based systems that can be worn by construction workers to alarm them of potential vehicular hazards [Pratt et al 2001; Ruff et al 2004]. Significant work is also occurring at NIOSH to understand the potential benefits and risks of exoskeleton use. This work is looking at reducing musculoskeletal disorders, vibration, and the potential impact on falls.
NIOSH is studying the performance and design of hardhats to improve overall personal protection with the hope of potentially increasing head protection for preventing traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by falls [Konda et al. 2016; Wu et al. 2017]. This work also includes efforts to improve consensus standards that address hard hat performance. In addition to improved design for reducing potential TBI, smart helmets with additional capabilities are being developed. For example, a smart safety helmet has been designed for monitoring methane and carbon monoxide concentrations caused by gas leaks [Roja et al 2018].
Barriers to wider adoption
Cost, maintenance, and privacy are all issues that could affect how widely these technologies are adopted. Many of these systems require infrastructure spending, such as an IoT mesh network, in addition to the cost of the wearable devices. Costs vary widely depending upon the technology. Individual sensors can cost as little as $35 (Bluetooth device) to over $1,000 (Radio frequency identification-RFID).
In many cases, more research is needed to fully understand the impact these new technologies have on the workforce. Some groups have expressed concerns that wearables could be used for productivity monitoring or that a company could use a device to track an employee’s location, hours worked, breaks, and even their number of steps during the day. Fortunately, in many cases it is possible to set up a system that keeps the user information anonymous.
What construction hazards do you think could benefit from wearable technology? If you have used any of the technologies described in this blog please share your experiences in the comment section below.
NOTE: This science blog was developed through a collaboration between a NORA Construction Sector Council workgroup and the NIOSH Center for Direct Reading and Sensor Technologies.
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