The explosion of wearable devices has environmental health and safety managers wondering if the popular technologies and disposable protective clothing can co-exist in the workplace.

Health-trackers such as step-counters and cardiovascular monitoring devices prompted many corporate decision-makers to incentivize wearables. The conventional wisdom was that health-conscious employees were more apt to lower insurance premiums, reduce absenteeism, and be more energetic and productive in the workplace. Those are reasonable assumptions given that employee pools routinely motivated each other with step and weight-loss goals tied to wearables.

But the benefits for health and safety supervisors have not necessarily been as clearly defined. Ranked among the primary concerns has been how do wearables function with disposable protective clothing, moving machinery, and other environmental hazards. The question is: Do the potential health benefits outweigh the risks of wearing devices while on task?

The Rise of Wearables in the Workplace

The growth of wearables is tightly tied to advancements in the Internet of Things (IoT), and Bosch and other experts reportedly predict that the industry will skyrocket from an estimated $30.6 billion in 2020 to upwards of $250 billion by the end of 2023. Needless to say, these products are fast-infiltrating the workplace regardless of whether safety supervisors and HR departments see them as a boon or not.

But according to some workspace research, wearables are not expected to disrupt safety. Research data conducted by The Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc. revealed that 27 percent of Americans, 28 percent of French citizens, and 56 percent of those in India indicate that wearables ranked as a top asset for improving worker safety. These are key takeaways from the Kronos study.

  • Approximately 73 percent of adults consider wearable devices beneficial to improved workplace safety globally.
  • Key benefits include improved safety, efficiency, and productivity, among others.
  • 96 percent of workers in Mexico believe wearables are beneficial.
  • 94 percent of Chinese workers state they have inherent safety benefits.

The U.S. lagged significantly behind other countries, with only 48 percent of American adults considering wearables beneficial to worker safety. According to the survey, a modest 13 percent of American adults utilize the technology during personal time as opposed to 73 percent in China. The Asian nation ranked number one in terms of wearable technology usage when not at their job.

The research also draws a logical conclusion that people in countries that utilize wearables on their personal time are more apt to take the devices into the work environment. Adult-aged employees in India and Mexico led the statistics with a stunning 82 percent rate. China was not far behind at 81 percent, with Great Britain (38 percent) and the U.S. (20 percent) showing minimal acceptance among the more industrialized countries.

While wearables are certainly surging in popularity and global acceptance at work, are they really compatible with necessary disposable protective clothing and overall safety?

Top Benefits to Wearables in the Workplace

Wearable devices have the capacity to connect wirelessly and serve a wide range of health and possibly, safety purposes. Products have begun being explicitly tailored for workplace use in terms of monitoring employees.

Workers are keenly aware that these same “safety” devices are likely to be used to oversee their productivity. To some, that sounds like a little too much Big Brother and has been met with some ideological resistance. But the so-called “Smart” devices are already being integrated into items such as personal protective equipment. Leading products include the following.

  • Protective Eyewear
  • Headsets with Full Visual Displays
  • Hardhats with Embedded Sensors

These wearable protective items are providing increased monitoring accessibility to supervisors and, potentially, environmental health and safety professionals. Business decision-makers see a considerable upside to keeping a watchful eye on workers in hazardous situations. Real-time alerts to the risk of injury certainly may deliver improved rapid response times. And, next-generation wearables are going even further in terms of reducing employee health risks.

In sectors such as mining, personal protective equipment is reportedly being outfitted with gas and oxygen detection features. Construction sector operations are also using wearable communication devices to alert boots-on-the-ground team members about emerging threats. They have reportedly proven beneficial in averting workplace injuries and potential fatalities.

Other applications include playing off the health and fitness craze that has workout warriors monitoring heart and stress rates, among others. By tapping into wireless communication with these devices, safety supervisors are able to require a team member to be pulled from a high-stress task when vital signs spike. Many common retail wearables already feature Bluetooth accessibility, which makes them cost-effective for commercial use.

Are Wearables Compatible with Disposable Protective Clothing?

Although it’s clear that wearables deliver health and safety benefits, it may not be time to open the wearable floodgates, so to speak. The seamless integration of wearable devices into personal protective clothing and equipment offers oversight and risk mitigation. By that same token, some devices are inclined to distract workers even during sometimes hazardous tasks.

Chief among these are the popular wristband and watch with advanced technology. These and other devices that require wired headphones or a device harnessed to the body increase the likelihood of becoming entangled or snagged.

By contrast, disposable protective clothing is often designed with an elastic at the wrists and ankles, among other areas, to avoid just this type of safety risk. From hospital scrubs to chemical splash protective clothing, we see determined designs that prevent penetrations and equipment snags from loose cuffs. That issue tends to be a significant concern for environmental health and safety supervisors who prompt CEOs and other decision-makers to invest in secure, disposable protective clothing.

This is not to say that wearable devices and disposable protective clothing are wholly incompatible. Products such as the industry-leading International Enviroguard line can accommodate wristbands, and watches, among others, under the secured disposable clothing. The caveat is that it would not necessarily be visibly accessible without rolling up cuffs while away from hazards.

Complete protective suits could house the devices with Bluetooth ear wear under the suits for interactive communication without posing a danger. Needless to say, these theoretical applications will task health and safety supervisors with creating policies and protocols around the use of wearables.

Wearable device use appears to be on the rise in the U.S. and could pull even with other nations in the coming years. According to the Kronos study, 72 percent of American students are inclined to utilize the devices, and 85 percent state they could prove beneficial in the workplace.