The wearable tech keeping industrial workers safe

At the back-end of last year I wrote about a fascinating new wearable technology from SmartSite, which is designed to help improve safety levels on construction sites.

The company, which is part of the Y Combinator stable, offers hardware that is connected to the cloud to help companies measure what hazardous substances employees are exposed to.

Such exposure is common on building sites, and can lead to conditions such as cancer, dermatitis and a range of respiratory problems.  To help reduce this, the SmartSite system monitors particulates in the air, UV rays, and even noise levels on site.

Working in a similar way is a smartwatch developed by industrial conglomerate Tata via their Group Technology and Innovation office.  They developed a watch for workers at Tata Steel, Tata Elxsi and Tata Consultancy Services to measure their movement, heart beat, falls, ambient gases and temperature.

Keeping workers safe

The company had a clear ambition to enter the wearables market, but the consumer space was incredibly crowded, whereas the market for industrial wearables was more accessible.  What’s more, Tata have a wide range of industrial workplaces that were invaluable in developing and subsequently rolling out the device.

The first test bed for the product was in Tata Steel where it was used not only to provide safety monitoring for the employees but also supporting their work and providing various administrative functions.

Implementation of the device required open communication with the workforce to ensure they fully supported the roll-out and were confident that their privacy was not being compromised.

The early results suggest that employee engagement has risen as workers feel supported and cared for by Tata Steel.  It’s also given the company greater awareness of the safety of the workplace, with various near misses automatically reported by the device, shedding light on an area that often goes under-reported.

The company hope to roll the device out across the Tata group, before then selling it externally, not only in heavy industrial sites such as mines, but also potentially in environments such as elderly care homes.

Worker protection

The personal protection market is certainly sizeable, and there are some fascinating technologies emerging in it.  For instance, I wrote recently about a British startup that has developed ear protectors that are capable of dampening harmful noises in the workplace, but letting through human voices.

The devices use digital signal processing akin to that found in many hearing aids to amplify speech, all whilst attenuating harmful noise to safer levels.

This is crucial as it means that the worker isn’t completely deaf to the noises around them, but they are nonetheless protected from the 80dB or so of noise that is considered dangerous to their health.  The system also comes with IoT sensors so that managers can continuously monitor the noise in the workplace, thus allowing occupational health staff to generate noise maps in real-time and develop personalized exposure data for each employee.

Given that over 2 million people die each year from occupational accidents or work-related disease it’s clear that more needs to be done to rectify matters, especially as the International Labour Organisation puts the cost of poor occupational safety at around 4% of global GDP.  It’s hard to say just what impact these wearable technologies might have on those figures, but whatever impact they can make has to be applauded.