Using wearable technology for an ergonomics task safety & risk assessment - can this be more accurate than the human eye?
Wearable technology is increasingly one of the most important pieces of equipment in the health and safety and ergonomics space. Many are seeing the benefits of using these small devices not only due to their potential to help with body awareness but simply by their ability to provide large scales of useable data. But what about for an individual or group Task Risk Assessment (TRA)? Do they provide more accurate results than a physiotherapist or ergonomist undertaking an individual TRA?
If we look at it this way, there are definitely short comings in the human brain and many different factors influence our observations. One of the most common drawbacks that comes to mind is what phycologists call ‘confirmation bias’. To put this into the context of performing a TRA, if the person carrying out the assessment happens to have an earlier perceived theory or hypothesis of any kind in relation to the employee executing the task and/or even the group or company, the observer will only see the evidence of their initial theory and thus miss crucial areas of concern. This can obviously have an impact on the final result of the assessment.
Without over inflating our cerebral bandwidth limitations, there is also the perceptual blindness or inattentive blindness that we can sometimes have, that are both failures of visual awareness. If this interests you more, have a look at The Invisible Gorilla test on the link below, you’ll be amazed.
So yes, we are limited as humans to observe with 100% accuracy, this we all know, so perhaps wearable tech could be the impartial observer during a TRA? Especially given the potential bandwidth of measuring data points and producing data that can provide even more insight than what one person can observe. Or maybe combining the two is the approach to get a faultless but also personal outcome?
Either way, if you still haven’t crossed over to using technology for safety, this is an easy and immediate effective entry and embracing this ‘fourth industrial revolution’ and being on the forefront of using it, will diminish some fear of the digital disruption that is fast coming our way. Perhaps not going so far as to believing that with the fast approaching AI streaming into our worlds, we will end up having, as Elon Musk quotes, ‘the relative intelligence of a house cat’ but we should embrace its benefits as it arises, staying ahead of the competition and preparing businesses for the coming age.
Most people reach for objects by bending over from the waist with their shoulders and back curling in a rounded position. Improper technique is a common problem with workers with job roles that require high physical demand and those in warehouses are typically required to do lifting with heavy loads and forceful movements.
It is well known that people working within the warehouse arena are at a high risk of obtaining musculoskeletal injuries. Incorrect bending technique, prolonged bending and bending and reaching with a rotated spine can cause serious spinal harm.
Wearable devices have come a long way since eyeglasses back in the 13th century, to the Sony Walkman in the late 70’s right through to the more recent Apple Watch. Now, due to the likes of Fitbit we are all becoming far more familiar with using them to aid our health and awareness. Wearables are now increasing in popularity within workplace health and safety and particularly in warehouses due to the high physical demand. They are being used to help prevent injury and warn workers if they are at risk. Not just warn them but also, in some cases such as the SoterSpine, educate them and encourage good movement technique during work hours with the bonus of this moving into everyday life.
A wearable device in the workplace is a type of smart device and is sized to be integrated with clothing, either clipped on the belt or the shirt or incorporated with personal protective equipment (ppe). They generally contain advanced hardware including gyroscopes and accelerometers coupled with complex data processing software. This complimentary technology takes data from the movement of the body and uses advance analytical techniques to provide physical activity profiles, giving the user and the proprietor valuable health and safety prevention information.
There are several different types available on the market and each have their own unique characteristics ability to help with prevention. The sensors are becoming more and more accurate as the hardware evolves and the backend algorithms advance with machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Depending on the device, another great advantage of using wearables on workers to prevent injury is the data that is collected can be used to help alter workplace environments or decrease repetitive movements. This can be incredibly useful in a highly physical job role where someone is at risk of injury or fatigue.
As a health and safety professional, manual handling advisor or ergonomist, considering moving into the wearable technology space would be an on-target decision to help protect your people; your most valuable asset!
5 reasons why you should include a SoterSpine trial in your next budget to reduce back injuries
SoterSpine is a wearable technology solution by Soter Analytics that helps industrial workers avoid musculoskeletal injury. It’s preventative, putting the worker in charge of their own progress by measuring their risk exposure and giving immediate insights to help improve their working techniques and behaviours.
1. Your colleagues are experiencing back or other musculoskeletal injuries and the workforce is aging
40,330 serious claims for body stressing events were reported to Safe Work Australia in 2016-17. The median claim amount for these injuries is $8,900 and it’s estimated that, additionally, it costs the employer 3X this amount in lost productivity.
This isn’t something that’s likely to go away any time soon. Safe Work Australia also measures that the frequency of serious claims increases as the workforce ages.
If this challenge exists in your workplace, and generic training videos and early treatment seems to be managing rather than solving the problem, you are likely investigating new solutions available that are preventing the injuries from occurring in the first place.
2. Your mission is to reach zero injuries and you are empowered to make it happen
3. You trust your colleagues to help you solve this problem
One of the challenges of implementing a wearable technology solution might be that you have thousands of workers across multiple sites and keeping on top of everyone using the solution could be a logistical nightmare.
Soter recognised this early in the development of the SoterSpine and decided to make a solution that engages every individual worker. Rather than having Managers or Health and Safety professionals telling workers what to do, SoterSpine puts each individual worker in charge of their own 10-15 day improvement program.
Engagement and satisfaction scores are very high, with more than 96% of workers giving positive ratings. Because the device is very accurate and also has a battery life of 30+ days, workers feel comfortable and trust the solution which leads to a 20-70% reduction in hazardous movements.
As a Health and Safety professional, you can use SoterSpine to engage thousands of your colleagues to achieve your Health and Safety goals. Say goodbye to the days where all the responsibility for injury prevention sits on your shoulders.
4. You love using data to make decisions
The average worker makes 507 movements per day (summary of movements) that are captured by the SoterSpine wearable device and 15% of these are measured to have been hazardous. Each worker uses the device for at least 10-days and hundreds or thousands of workers might go through the program, resulting in a large amount of data for you to analyse. This data that is a lot more accurate than the in-field visual assessments you’ll be replacing.
All this data is organised in an easy to use and comprehend online dashboard. From this, you’ll be able to identify job roles and tasks that significantly increase the risk of injury. Even more data is available in case you want to do an even deeper dive into the data, or you can work with Soter’s Ergonomics team and network of Occupational Health partners to find additional insights and build & implement new solutions.
5. This is the year where you take prevention to the next level
Trialling the SoterSpine solution is usually done with a subsection of workers that represents the wider workforce. Often, this is around 30-90 workers across a number of different job roles. The goal of a trial is to confirm that the solution works for your business and shows you how the results could be replicated in a larger rollout following the trial.
If you are interested in including a trial and/or a wider rollout in your next Health and Safety budget, please fill out the form below and someone from Soter will be in touch in the next 24 hours.
Skyscrapers are built using concrete, but concrete is not a great material to build a tall structure. Tensile strength is the resistance of a material to breaking when there is movement or tension (i.e. from wind, earthquakes, and vibrations). Concrete's tensile strength is very low which limited the height of buildings. In the 19th century, a solution was found to reinforce concrete with steel. A super material was formed, combining high compressive strength from the concrete & high tensile strength from the steel. The era of the skyscraper was born.
Engineers decide which material types & quantities are required to build something. They have turned it into a standardised industry, with material rating systems to ensure the design matches the requirements. Too much force on the wrong material causes failure, which is obviously not great when you’re talking about skyscrapers, bridges, airplanes, etc. And it’s become relatively easy to measure strength - often through using strain gauges to measure how a material fatigues under certain conditions.
Standards have struggled to answer the question of what humans should be able to endure. The International Labour Organization published an information sheet in 1962 that stated limits for lifted weights - these limits were based on statistics of injury & illness. The NIOSH lifting equation was published in 1981 (revised in 1991) and defines what is the maximum weight & repetition rate that should be undertaken. Both these standards (and many others) face the same criticism, they create limits for all humans as if humans are all equal. Never mind if one person is a weight lifter & the other has a fused spine, they are equal in the eyes of the standards. Personally, due to this limitation, it’s surprising that the NIOSH equation is still seen as ‘the truth’ in many industries and, additionally, it’s very complex to use and many estimations end up being used by the assessor (input errors = output errors).
Other standards realised that not all humans are equal and have different recommendations for groups. A couple examples:
When I think back to materials engineering, engineers don’t introduce a material in millions of different applications, wait for failures, and then decide if it’s suitable or not - rather they measure the material itself to make the decision. Likewise, at Soter Analytics we realised we should actually measure how the human is reacting to a particular force requirement, thus we began the development of our intensity model.
How does our intensity model work? Every time a person makes a movement (e.g. lifting an object) we collect high-frequency Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) data through our SoterSpine wearable device. This data is fed into our neural network which is trained to understand if the person finds the particular movement difficult or not. How does it actually do that? We measure things like the speed of movement, how jerky the movement was, the angle of the back when they finish the movement and are holding the object (some people lean forward more because the object is heavy, others lean back to compensate for the weight), and 29 other features that use data-science but complex to explain. More difficult movements increase the risk of injury as the body nears its limit of capability.
As an ergonomic or health & safety specialist, have you been frustrated with the generic standards?
Have you struggled to take the measurements to fit into complicated formulas?
How could you (and your workers) use the intensity model to manage and reduce the risk of the unique individuals working at your workplace?
Workforce ages are increasing, mirroring the overall population age rise. It seemed logical that this will increase injury rates as research shows a person will lose 3-5% of muscle strength and recovery capabilities every decade after 30 (Preserve your muscle mass - Harvard Health).
Our team has studied the injury data from more than a dozen companies and while we are not permitted to go into any specifics, older workers actually experience fewer injuries - and in particular, fewer musculoskeletal injuries. Offsetting that, however, is they generally take longer to recover from a musculoskeletal injury. Despite that, older workers still experience fewer days lost than their younger colleagues.
To validate this, we took the responses of more than 500 workers who answered our in-app question:
"Do you often get up in the morning with a stiff feeling in your lower back?"
Older workers have an advantage - experience. In general, they know how to do the job better, have done the job for a while and built up strength, and proven they can handle the job requirements.
This is particularly noticeable in the number of higher-risk movements more experienced workers make when compared to their younger colleagues. Higher-risk movements are when the worker is exposed to a posture or force that has an increased risk of injury (specifics on what these movements are can be found here).
Gen-X workers make 55% less higher-risk movements compared to their Post-Millennial colleagues while doing the same amount of work (we also measured all the movements each worker made, not only the higher-risk ones, which showed each generation group does the same amount of work).
This starts to explain why older workers are having fewer injuries. What are the other factors? We will continue to explore this over the next few months as more data is analysed.