More than 21% of Americans currently utilize some type of wearable technology that tracks individual health and fitness data (think smartwatches like Apple Watch and fitness trackers like Fitbit). According to a 2019 Gartner analysis, worldwide spending on wearable devices was expected to reach $52 billion in 2020—up 27% from 2019. Further, market research firm Valuates Reports projects the wearable technology market value will reach $57.6 billion by 2022.

“Wearable devices show much
promise in regard to improving
workplace safety.”

Beyond personal use, these types of devices have broad and increasing implications in the workplace. In fact, according to a report by Research and Markets, the global industrial wearable market reached $1.64 billion in 2018 and is expected to increase 64% to $2.78 billion by 2024, fueled particularly by increased usage in healthcare, information technology, telecommunications, and manufacturing.

Wearable devices also show much promise with regard to improving workplace safety. Currently, devices exist that allow companies to measure and analyze activity, motion, and posture; improve physical capabilities; and even measure workplace conditions such as temperature or harmful gas exposure. Some of the newer technology is also capable of providing real-time data to give employers and workers immediate feedback about potentially harmful conditions, such as an alert about an unsafe lifting position or the danger of falling asleep while driving. Injured employees on light-duty restrictions can also use wearable devices to alert them if they are performing an action that could inhibit recovery time. Some companies are implementing modular ergonomic exoskeletons, which can provide a manual worker with additional strength and support. Even desk-job employees are benefiting from wearable technology, through sensors that alert them of potential neck, wrist, or shoulder injuries.

With all the data and technology being developed, it seems likely that workers’ compensation providers could use it for injury prevention. However, with all this technology come limitations and caveats, particularly in terms of privacy, ethics, cost, and data analysis.

Would it be a violation of an employee’s privacy to mandate they wear a tracking device to determine where an injury occurred? Devices used to track safety may also track individual productivity, or an employee’s whereabouts, which enters a legal gray area. To avoid some of the potential drawbacks of these types of devices in the workplace, experts advise companies to establish clear policies outlining what data the technology is collecting, who sees it, and specifically how they will use it. Companies should inform employees that their information is being collected and ensure that data is encrypted and secure.

Organizations may find upfront costs prohibitive to outfit a large portion of their workforce with wearable technology, even if it affords tremendous cost savings in the long term. The good news is that wearable device costs are expected to decrease over time as new products enter the marketplace.

Before instituting the use of wearable health devices in their workplace, companies should assess their capacity to analyze the data being collected. If they are unable to use the information to implement actionable steps toward better workplace safety, it doesn’t make sense to make the investment in the technology or to undertake the effort to gather the data.

Overall, experts believe wearable health devices are positioned to become even more vital to global health, especially as they continue to move beyond just counting steps and tracking fitness. In the next few years, look for wearables to provide even more important proactive and interventive health information that can help users reduce injuries, manage anxiety, monitor wearers for diabetes and heart problems, assess them for viral illnesses, sense seizures, and possibly even prevent pandemics. In the workplace, these devices could become critical tools in helping prevent workplace injuries.

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