Though mostly confined in public perception to smart watches and fitness bracelets, wearable tech is on pace to make a much more significant impact in the very near future. Among the many other applications for which this tech is being developed and tested, one promising direction is in providing safety measures for construction workers. The emerging line of “smart clothing,” which already features smart vests and hardhats, seeks to revolutionize workplace safety by bringing big data to construction sites.
Whatever the current state of the technology, it can be assumed that eventually the glitches will be worked out, and some safety returns will become apparent. Whether or not workers will embrace this technology or employers will use the tech as intended is another matter. In this post, we will take a closer look at wearable safety tech and explore the possible uses, misuses and legal ramifications when used on construction sites.
The technology in question is most easily understood as standard construction worker apparel embedded with sensors to send and receive data. Imagine a supervisor opening an app and instantly knowing the current location of every worker on the site. The supervisor would receive a real-time data stream showing every worker’s vital signs, location in relation to site hazards, as well as updates to any sudden changes in a worker’s health status. Workers not wearing safety gear will be immediately revealed, and in theory, the flow of work could move forward in a much more coordinated and monitored way than ever before.
As with most new technologies, there is, however, a price to pay, and that is after the cost of equipping an entire site and crew with state-of-the-art technology. The major cost is privacy. It seems fitting that a foreman should know if a worker is endangering himself by not wearing a hard hat. But it does not follow that an employer should have a real-time record of every heartbeat, every bathroom trip, every step taken by every employee throughout a construction project. Where is the line between safety and self-incrimination?
It has been apparent across many fields that big data has two sides. On the one hand, it can be very helpful for employers and officials to know what is happening all the time. On the other hand, the courts have shown willingness to allow the data people collect on the devices they own and operate to be used against them. Could this data be used to evaluate workers, using health and safety data to quantify how much work a worker completes in a day? Is there a plausible scenario in which employers use worker health data to maximize productivity instead of, say, maximizing safety? Absolutely.
Among the most vocal proponents of wearable tech for construction sites are workers’ compensation insurers. American International Group, Inc. (AIG), one of the largest workers’ comp insurers in the world, recently made an investment in these technologies through a company called Human Condition Safety. That insurance companies are among the first to fund these emerging technologies is not a bad thing in itself, but it is clear that these companies intend to profit from these new technologies. If that profit is accomplished by truly improving safety and creating a better environment for workers, then the future is truly about to arrive. But if these technologies are used to negate legitimate claims and harm workplace morale with an air of Big Brother surveillance, then workers will likely be resistant if not hostile to the change.
When wearable safety technology makes its way from the testing phase into the market, it is possible that regulatory agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), could require these devices as they now require hardhats and reflective vests. When conformity among workers is compelled by law, and when this conformity requires not only safety measures but also access to a great scope of data with a real monetary value and the potential to evaluate workers through hidden criteria, a scenario could easily arise in which workers are terminated not for safety violations but for any of the possible reasons revealed by these “safety” technologies.
Stay tuned to the Bailey & Oliver Law Firm blog for more information as this complicated issue unfolds. With decades of winning experience handling construction site injuries, Bailey & Oliver is committed to staying ahead of the latest trends and technologies. It is our job to be wary of silver-bullet technologies, and we will follow this one closely in the coming months and years. If you or someone you know has been injured on a construction site, go with tried and true consumer protection. Call Bailey & Oliver Law Firm today.
Simpson, A. G. (2016, January 6). AIG Bets on Workplace Safety Wearables with Investment in Startup HCS. Retrieved February 25, 2016, from http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2016/01/06/394158.htm
U.S. Labor Department's OSHA fines B.O.S.S. Construction $57,600 for failing to provide adequate fall protection for workers. (2010, October 20). Retrieved February 25, 2016, from https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=NEWS_RELEASES&p_id=18573
Walsh, J. (2015, October 1). Human Condition Aims to Transform Construction-Site Safety With Wearables. Retrieved February 25, 2016, from http://lineshapespace.com/construction-site-safety/