PBF cover in action

Could smartbelts make “doing the back in” a thing of the past for Australian workers?


Wearable tech to keep employees safe


Those so inclined can strap on an Apple Watch or Fitbit and keep track of their physical activity, monitor their sleep, police their calorie intake and keep a check on everything from heart rhythms and blood pressure to fertility. They can even use it for emergencies – with a recent report of a man’s Apple Watch calling triple-0 when he fell off a ladder.


With the popularity of smartwatches and fitness trackers, the life insurance industry was quick to tap the tech to help develop tailored cover along with incentive programs to encourage wearers to keep fit and healthy. Now other insurers are looking at wearables to help keep workers safe.


There’s a watch that enables workers to be monitored 24/7 by combining GPS location tracking with a personal panic alarm and two-way hands-free communication through a smartphone app. There’s a smartcap and earplugs that monitor worker fatigue. Australian engineers have been working on smart patches capable of detecting environmental hazards such as UV radiation and toxic gas. There’s even a helmet that incorporates augmented reality (AR) to offer schematics and interactive holograms to help workers do their job while improving safety.


Of particular interest to insurers in the workers’ compensation space has been the use of wearables to help prevent worker injuries.


In Australia, 90% of all serious claims are due to injuries and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). SafeWork Australia notes over one-third of the total number of cases and total economic cost for work-related injuries and illness are associated with body stressing or manual handling.


Enter smartbelts. Fitted with sensors and GPS, the smartbelts provide data points on a worker’s motion and location every second, detecting movements such as walking, sitting, driving, bending and twisting. The belts are being used to help insurers collect and analyse data on worker movements. The aim is proactive risk identification, which can result in risk mitigation.


QBE is one insurer looking at using wearable sensor technology to help brokers and customers manage worker risks.


“Wearable technology allows for the monitoring of activity in the real world – where it really matters,” said QBE Australia’s people risk general manager Rob Kosova. “Sensors can track, analyse, and report on movement throughout the day in real-time.


“This technology will allow customers to better predict, manage, and reduce the likelihood and consequence of musculoskeletal injuries in the workplace.”


Also looking into the possibilities of wearables for worker safety is a research project from icare. The study is examining the potential of wearable technologies to assist with the prevention of work-related MSDs. 


The program is using a device that provides real-time feedback whenever so-called “high-risk postures” – excessive bending, twisting or reaching – are detected. The aim is to evaluate whether wearable technology can add to a more holistic approach and help workplaces transform how they prevent work-related MSDs. As a result of the initial trial at a timber cladding manufacturer, the data gathered is being used to review and update safety practices within the business.


Australian consumers love their tech and many are willing to strap on the sensors at work.


A survey commissioned by The Workforce Institute found 69% of Australians believed that wearable technology could benefit the workplace. While 30% currently used wearables in their personal lives, 43% have worn technologies such as headsets, smart badges, and barcode scanners for work-related activities. Increasing worker safety is the main reason 43% would be eager to use wearable tech for work-related purposes. Smart headphones, smartwatches and arm/wrist computing devices were the top three wearables workers thought would be useful.


Wearables, coupled with AI, can provide insurers with real-time data that could be used to provide dynamic risk management services – and make workplaces safer. In the years ahead, there is likely to be the ability to send information to a worker through a wearable, meaning someone on or off-site could monitor the data and send messages to a worker to prevent injury. And if injuries can be prevented, it will save the employee a lot of pain and the employer a lot of money.


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