It’s likely that you or someone you know owns wearable technology. Smartwatches like Fitbit, Apple Watch and Garmin have become increasingly popular among consumers in the personal health and well-being space. These smartwatches can monitor different biometrics such as heart rate, body temperature, sleep quality, metabolic rate and step count that can help people track and meet their health and fitness goals. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg; wearable technology also has useful applications across multiple industries, including construction.
“In order to keep workers safe, you have to know where they are and what hazards they’re facing,” says LHSFNA Management Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Wearable technology can track this information in real time and help employers promote healthier work conditions and develop tailored safety protocols that are based on the physical demands of the job.”
Wearable technology refers to technological devices that are worn on or close to the body. In construction applications, wearable devices can come in the form of watches, exoskeletons, helmets, eyewear, footwear and more. These devices are designed to address the most prevalent hazards construction workers face and can serve as powerful tools in promoting health and safety. For example, wearables can provide location information, proximity detection, fall detection, ergonomic support and environmental monitoring, which can detect extreme heat, pollution and noise. Below, we provide an overview of some of the most popular types of wearable devices in the construction industry.
Exoskeletons and Ergonomic Support
An exoskeleton is a wearable device that works in tandem with the user to reduce the physical load on the body when performing a strenuous task. Exoskeletons can take on a variety of forms, ranging from a full mechanical suit to a glove. Construction work often involves repetitive, strenuous movements that can take a toll on the body over time. Many construction workers suffer from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) as a result of repeated stress and injury over the course of their careers. Broadly speaking, the goal of exoskeleton use is to prevent that damage from happening. This group of wearables provides ergonomic support that can improve posture, increase strength and support muscle groups placed in uncomfortable positions (e.g., stooping, crouching and reaching), lessening the physical workload and making construction work more sustainable for the body.
Physiological Status Monitors
Devices that monitor physiological status include wearables such as smartwatches and armbands. They can collect information on a worker’s physical cues of stress or overexertion, such as core body temperature, heart rate and breathing rate. Having access to this data in real time allows workers and supervisors to actively monitor the body’s response to the work environment and adjust as necessary. Some wearables can even detect potentially problematic postures and alert the user to correct it in the moment. Over time, this can reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injury and even common injuries like falls, slips and trips. Some of these wearables can also detect falls and immediately alert supervisors when they do happen, leading to faster response times.
There are a variety of hazards construction workers have to consider in their working environment, including extreme weather, pollution, chemical and gas leaks, moving equipment and, for some laborers, oncoming motorists. Similar to physiological status monitors, different types of sensors can be worn on various parts of the body to detect and alert workers of these environmental hazards. One popular example is proximity sensors, which are devices that can detect objects nearby or within a set radius and alert users of their presence. Proximity sensors are useful for avoiding struck-by and caught-between incidents in particular.
The State of Wearable Technology in Construction
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 83 percent of contractors believe wearables would improve on-the-job safety, yet only six percent of contractors used construction wearables in 2018. The same study projects that 23 percent will be using some form of this technology by 2023.
Wearable technology is still relatively new to the construction industry and more research is needed to understand exactly how these devices will impact the workforce. While many contractors believe this technology can improve workplace safety and productivity, there have been several barriers to adoption, including cost, concerns about privacy and worker tracking and adding even more bulk to the personal protective equipment (PPE) construction workers already wear. Fortunately, many of these devices are compact, can be set up to keep users’ data anonymous and vary in cost. With more research and adoption, wearable technology has the potential to dramatically improve health and safety in the construction industry.