Sensors worn on the body are helping to prevent injuries and absenteeism by providing ground-breaking manual handling data.

Eight stories high, surrounded by scaffolding and steel, a father and son team of bricklayers are building the framework of what will soon be an academic tower along the sandy coast of southwest Wales – home of the Science and Innovation campus of Swansea University.

It’s a fitting locale for a lesson in enterprise innovation where hard labor meets high tech. Between the two of them, Steve and Christian Gwyn are wearing 16 tiny wireless movement sensors from an Australian-based company called dorsaVi. Throughout the Smiths’ shift, dorsaVi’s ViSafe sensors will track every bend, twist, and twinge of their back and shoulder muscles as they lay brick after brick after brick. Global construction giant Vinci Construction will use the objective, precision data to better understand how to improve worker safety, reduce risk and potentially lower the cost of worker injury claims. They’re using the new sensors to test whether a new adjustable mortar board that rents for about a £1 (US$1.56) per day might save them money, and the workers’ backs.

“I’ve been laying bricks for more than 20 years and I feel it every day in my back. My son is just getting started and I don’t want him to have to go through this,” said 54 year old Steve.

Wearable sensor technology has exploded in the consumer market where aspirational fitness enthusiasts have demonstrated an insatiable appetite for diagnostics about their daily lives. Sensors are being built into rings, watches, glasses, contact lenses and more.

First generation devices are able to track patients’ heart rates, activity levels, sleep patterns, and calories burned. New sensors are being built into textiles like socks, shirts and shoes. Investors have taken notice. A recent IPO from the wearable sensor technology Fitbit valued the company at more than US$4 billion. One recent report from IDTechEX estimates that there will be three billion wearable sensors by 2025 with more than 30 per cent of them being new sensors that are just beginning to emerge.

Industry has long had an interest in sensor technology, but up until very recently the focus has been on the Internet of Things, where a network of physical objects are embedded with software, sensors and connectivity to exchange data and be monitored remotely. But with workplace injuries eating into profits and productivity globally, more and more companies are discovering that their most valuable assets – their employees – also have critical data to share. And sometimes the best way to acquire that data is to utilize wearable sensor technology.

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“To lose a person to a musculoskeletal injury caused by lifting equipment improperly or from a process that was poorly designed has a major impact on our business,” said Sean Watters, Emergency Response Unit Manager for London Underground. “We have four teams around London waiting to respond at any time and we can’t afford to have these people lose work days to injuries.”

When it comes to ‘old school’ industry, it doesn’t get much older than Transport for London, the enterprise that runs the 152-year old Tube. The London Underground hired dorsaVi to help them assess their existing safety processes and help them prioritize safety features for a fleet of new emergency response vehicles. TFL is trying to reduce or eliminate manual handling risk for its employees. The dorsaVi sensors are informing their buying decision before they commit to a significant capital purchase.

“For us, ViSafe is the next step forward in reducing the risk of harm to our employees and others within London Underground,” said Watters. ViSafe is a wireless sensor technology that tracks and measures how people move in real-time work situations, so companies can assess risky movements with hard data, not hunches, and then design fact-based solutions to create a safer work environment. The ViSafe system consists of wearable motion sensors, software, and sophisticated algorithms that provide an objective, quantitative overview of workplace physical activity. The ViSafe team analyses the data and video footage to pinpoint risky areas of repetitive or sustained movements that can lead to injuries.

Workplace injuries are an expensive global problem. In the US, companies will spend $80 billion on workers compensation claims this year. In the UK, 8.3 million work days are lost due to musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), which make up 42 per cent of all work-related illnesses. MSD can become a chronic condition affecting an individual’s long-term health and quality of life, yet other programs to prevent workplace injury are, on the whole, doing little to curb the growing burden of workplace injury and recovery. As a result, employers and insurers are actively looking for more effective, objective solutions based on fact, not guesswork.

Wearable technology now offers employers the opportunity to take risk assessment to the next level – providing an in-depth understanding of the demands that a given task or job is putting on the human body. Being able to gain, for example, a combination of accurate movement data and muscle activity information from real situations on-site, whether in a warehouse, in an office or a hospital, is unique. Giving employers insight into where injury risks might occur – such as when a worker is lifting heavy objects or if they twist or turn in a way that places strains on the body – helps them champion initiatives to address the risk and to prevent injuries from occurring and provide a safer workplace.

Wearable tech is quickly becoming a critical new tool to significantly advance the work that ergonomists and OHS professionals do every day in reducing workplace risk. It can add objective data about movement that the human eye simply cannot see; complex movement patterns, muscle activity and the effect of fatigue over longer periods of time. Wearable sensors enable monitoring over time, over a whole shift perhaps, which adds a new depth to the data OHS professionals have to hand. This all allows companies to make important investment decisions to ensure they are creating and maintaining safest work environments possible.

Getting employees back to work and keeping them healthy is another huge issue for employers.
According to the Workers Compensation Research Institute in the US, the average employee injury keeps them away from work for seven working days. For more serious injuries, it’s much longer.

That’s lost productivity for companies and an economic burden on the employee’s family. In the UK if someone is off for four weeks, their probability of a prolonged period of time off work increases significantly, yet in many workplaces return to work OHS activities only begin at this four-week point.

Using wearable technology to establish the functional requirements of a job is the next step in improving return to work programs. Understanding the physical demands of a job accurately and objectively means that return to work can be better managed with risk controlled, and better outcomes for the individual and the company.

Back in Wales where the Gwyn family wound down their shift, the sensors provided some interesting insights for Vinci. By using the new and adjustable mortar board (developed by one of their own entrepreneurial employees, by the way), the sensors documented an 84 per cent reduction in low back muscle activity, and up to 70 per cent reduction of high risk movements. Plus, an important insight was the confirmation of a 17 per cent increase in productivity (bricks laid per minute) when using the new adjustable mortar board versus the old way of doing things.

Wearable technology is a valuable tool in the life cycle of workplace health and safety and therefore should be a critical part of the occupational health and safety plans of a business. By providing an objective and accurate source of data on worker movement, potential injury and by acting as an aid to rehabilitation, this technology takes the guesswork and high costs out of current workplace health and safety practices.

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