From drone fleets and autonomous transportation systems to smart homes with computer-controlled lighting, heating, media and security systems, a new group of highly-automated technologies is gripping the popular imagination. These technologies – made possible by the Internet of Things (IoT) – form advanced ecosystems of interrelated devices with the capacity to monitor, detect, communicate and act on the real world independently of human intervention. Promising to fulfil all of our wildest technological dreams and needs, the IoT age has arrived – and it looks like its here to stay.
While the consumer applications of IoT tend to receive the most attention, one area that is seeing strong growth in the uptake of IoT devices is workplace safety. Workplace safety costs businesses billions every year, and industries with especially hazardous working environments – Construction, Oil & Gas, Mining, Utilities, Rail, among others – are beginning to adopt IoT technology to help minimize risk and address preventable threats. In addition, as the COVID-19 pandemic surges around us, the phenomenon of ‘social distancing’ and remote working has emerged to help avoid risk of infection. For the many who work across the aforementioned industries however, working from home will not be logistically possible. In order to reduce the burden on hospitals and medical staff, it is now more important than ever to protect employees from having to be treated for preventable injuries.
Before exploring these IoT solutions, however, let us first consider some of the key threats faced by workers in these industries.
1 in 5 worker deaths in the US and incurring tens of thousands of short and long-term injuries each year
Construction is one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, accounting for 1 in 5 worker deaths in the US and incurring tens of thousands of short and long-term injuries each year. In construction, the major risk is falling from a height, which accounts of 26 per cent of fatal injuries in the workplace. Additional risks come from being struck by vehicles and heavy moving objects, proximity to overhead/underground high voltage power lines, confined spaces, high noise environments, and exposure to dust and fumes.
Other industries are often faced with some combination of the above, or similar, threats. In the Rail sector, for instance, there is high risk from collisions with vehicles, objects and machinery and vulnerability to electric shock. In Utilities, the number one risk is slips, trips and falls, accounting for 30 per cent of Lost Workday Injuries (LWIs) in 2016. And in Oil & Gas extraction, exposure to flammable gas, chemical emissions and oxygen-deficient atmospheres creates vulnerability to explosions and chemical poisoning.
Tackling threats in a high-tech world
What, then, is being done to tackle these threats? In a high-tech world, many safety measures currently in use – hardhats, earplugs, gloves, gas masks, guardrails, harnesses, protective goggles and high visibility clothing – have been in use a long time. While these measures are still fundamental in minimizing risk, companies have now started to integrate IoT technologies to enhance their application. These technologies bring together real-time analytics, machine learning, advanced sensors and embedded systems to offer a number of key functionalities:
- Physiological monitoring
Wearable technology is used to monitor a worker’s physiological state in real-time. Japanese wearable tech company Mitsufuji is active in this space, creating smart clothes woven from silver-metallised fibres that collect a range of data about its wearer, including heart rate and body temperature. Other examples include wristbands with bio-sensors to accurately measure stress levels and glasses that detect eye movements to identify fatigue and periods of micro-sleep.
- Environmental monitoring
Sensors used to measure temperature, radiation, gas leaks, carbon monoxide and other harmful chemicals can automatically alert workers to unsafe external conditions. Additionally, visual imaging software can map 3D representations of a worker’s environment, facilitating effective two-way communication between supervisors and personnel in the field, allowing for remote guidance technologies to provide live assistance to endangered workers (e.g. guiding a trapped miner out of a tunnel).
- Situational awareness, training and behavioural data
Augmented Reality (AR) technologies offer new ways to support decision making in the field by providing holographic representations of physical equipment, while Virtual Reality (VR) technologies offer immersive situational training without the risks associated with real-life procedures. These technologies also offer up valuable behavioral data, which can be used to gauge a worker’s risk tolerance level and alertness in response to incidents.
- Proximity detection
Proximity detection systems utilize wearable sensors to monitor workers’ location, map their movements, and alert them to nearby hazards. One example of this are radio-frequency identification (RFIDs), which can measure a worker’s proximity to moving equipment and alert them to possible collisions and near misses. Another piece of kit is the ‘smart helmet’, which can immediately detect an accident, determine the worker’s location and send an alert containing coordinates to a safety control centre. The centre is able to make video and audio contact and communicate with the worker until help arrives.
Exoskeletons can assist with heavy lifting and the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) by analyzing worker movements and providing the necessary support. The Chairless Chair, for example, used by factory floor workers, fixes around the back and legs to provide support whenever the worker sits or crouches. Exoskeletons are also used to monitor worker movements, identifying repetitive movements and sustained periods of overexertion.
IoT technologies and innovations
IoT innovations are helping to improve workplace safety on multiple fronts
Taken together, these IoT innovations are helping to improve workplace safety on multiple fronts. Firstly, they are preventative. By closely monitoring one’s environment – both internal and external – IoT technologies can pre-empt and alert workers to potential dangers. Secondly, they are responsive. In the case of an accident, IoT technologies can alert supervisors and help coordinate a quick and effective response. Thirdly, they are informative. By accumulating and analyzing rich pools of data, IoT technologies can help optimize work in the field and find improved ways to limit risk.