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November 18, 2019
CPWR: Wearable technology could prevent struck-by hazards

Wearable technology could alert construction workers to nearby vehicles or equipment, preventing caught between and struck-by injuries, a recent study found. A prototype belt with vibrating motors alerted participants to the presence of vehicles and equipment in research performed by CPWR—The Center for Construction Research and Training.

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Researchers developed a waist belt embedded with a series of vibrating motors worn by participants. The motors received signals from a hazard alert system that runs on a laptop or mobile devices and monitors equipment and vehicles at a site.

Key findings in tests of the Embedded Safety Communication System (ESCS) included:

  • Participants found it more difficult to identify signals from motors on a waist belt if they were arranged vertically rather than horizontally;
  • Participants had approximately 95% accuracy in identifying signals from individual motors when adjacent motors were spaced 2.5 inches apart; and
  • Three signal parameters could be used to communicate information: signal intensity, signal duration, and signal delay.

CPWR, NIOSH agreement

As part of CPWR’s cooperative agreement with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), researchers from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) conducted this research. NIOSH has directed or funded several tests of wearable technology for safety applications in construction and other industries.

The need for research in construction is acute, according to NIOSH, because while construction accounts for 6 percent of the U.S. workforce, it accounts for 20 percent of workplace fatalities each year. Because industrial monitoring systems are impractical at construction sites, wearable technology connected to mobile or Internet of Things (IoT) networks could offer a level of protection needed in the industry.

CPWR chose to test vibrational devices because hearing and vision can be limited in the construction environment. Struck-by and caught-in or caught-between are two of the “Focus Four” hazards that account for 60% of construction worker deaths each year, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA now emphasizes inspections for the Focus Four hazards in its revised enforcement weighting system.

Wearable technology projects

Much of NIOSH’s past research has examined the potential for wearable devices to evaluate personal exposure to airborne contaminants. While air sampling has been miniaturized to handheld devices, the development of wearable devices is in its infancy. The institute is considering the potential for a “smart” safety helmet equipped with sensors that can detect carbon monoxide and methane.

Consumer wearables, usually connected to smartphones or mobile devices, are being used to improve health and well-being by aiding in personal fitness; and the technology continues to develop.

In addition to testing of the ESCS to warn workers of nearby equipment and vehicles, other applications of wearable technology under study include:

  • Physiological status monitors to collect worker data in the outdoor environment and warn about the potential for heat stress;
  • Environmental sensors to monitor air quality, including carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and gas leaks, as well as, noise; and
  • Exoskeletons to reduce the physical stress of manual labor and prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

Barriers to widespread adoption of wearable technology currently include cost, maintenance, and privacy concerns. While a Bluetooth-enabled sensor typically costs $35, a radio frequency identification (RFID) device can cost $1,000, according to NIOSH.

Some groups have concerns that wearable devices could be used for productivity monitoring, tracking an employee’s location, hours worked, breaks, or even number of steps taken during a workday.

CPWR is the research and training arm of North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU), a federation of construction industry labor unions.

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