Features - Business

Improving worker safety with physiological monitoring



Construction workers accept that certain risks to health and safety are an inherent part of their job and/or working environments.

While health and safety standards have certainly improved, mitigation of all risks and dangers within the job cannot be comprehensive. Yet, despite new health and safety fines being introduced in February 2016, the value of fines collected by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the last year has dramatically increased to £12.96m, up 83% from £7.09m for the same period the year before (according to a recent report by law firm, Clyde & Co). And this is on top of already high insurance premiums that construction companies have to pay.

Moreover, HSE reported 27 construction worker deaths at work last year, with the majority of those attributed to falls from a height or vehicle accidents. The three biggest safety hazards on construction sites are widely acknowledged to be excavations, working at height and movement of vehicles and plant machinery. Falls and tumbles account for a significant number of incidents each year, and if a lone worker falls, it may go undetected for a longer period of time. A recent high profile case at EDF’s Hinkley Power Plant saw a worker fall and crack vertebrae, resulting in the Office for Nuclear Regulation investigation citing ‘gaps in compliance of legal requirements’ and EDF was served an improvement notice. Other risks to construction workers health may include heat stroke or cardiac strain, resulting from confined, overly hot or fume-filled environments. Beyond these immediate symptoms, noise induced hearing loss following regular exposure to excessive noise from machinery or plant equipment is becoming a commonplace concern for employees and and their employers.

With so many factors to take into consideration, it makes for an incredibly complex and potentially costly problem for health, safety, environment and quality managers to solve. Clearly more needs to be done to prioritise health and safety and elevating the discussion to board level is the first step to engender change and improve upon current solutions. Fostering and promoting a culture of safety from top down is important to reduce risk, and for many construction organisations it’s also necessary to educate workers to ensure they actively participate in safety procedures and adhere to guidelines and regulations, even without supervision.

Technology is increasingly becoming a realistic consideration for construction companies looking to significantly improve worker safety. Automatic auditing systems are already going some way to simplify compliance and ensure that health and safety guidelines are met. But what about workers’ personal safety and wellbeing?

New physiological monitoring innovations are undoubtedly a large part of the answer. Wearables like smartwatches and health and activity trackers have gained huge momentum in the consumer world, and now industry is keen to understand what benefits they could offer them too. Such technology is already being trialled in the defence, security and public safety sectors, where small body-worn trackers are used to monitor vital signs of soldiers and workers in real-time, providing automated alerts to ill health, with the aim of preventing injury and protecting lives. Could this technology become a reality on construction sites too?

For industrial wellbeing, a new wave of ear-worn – rather than wrist based – physiological tracking devices (known as ‘hearables’) is emerging. The ear is the only place in the body that all vital signs like core body temperature (CBT) and heart rate can be accurately and unobtrusively monitored continuously and in real time. Devices are also capable of measuring heart rate variability, VO2, distance and cadence. Importantly for construction workers, fall detection is possible from the same ear-worn device, meaning earlier intervention or faster treatment could minimise injury, or even save lives. For example, a worker experiencing a raised CBT could indicate they are suffering from heat stress, which can lead to dehydration, delirium or in the worst cases, hyperthermia, while abnormal heart rate readings could detect fatigue or stress, which frequently leads to severe injury, especially when operating machinery or vehicles.

Another important consideration for construction workers is reducing noise induced hearing loss (NIHL). Currently hearing protectors such as ear defenders are single purpose, and construction workers need to remove these to communicate. In-ear devices integrate hearing protection with existing radio communication, providing a more effective barrier to noise. In-ear devices can also include noise metering capabilities, which measure sound exposure of the wearer to determine the risk level of NIHL. At the same time, such devices can allow ambient pass-through of sound at safe levels to ensure the wearer can maintain a safe level of hearing for communication and situational awareness needs.

Bodytrak® is one of the few in-ear monitoring devices available for industrial use. From a single earpiece – which sits snugly under protective headgear – physiological factors, fall detection, fatigue levels and NIHL data are processed onboard via embedded software and can be sent wirelessly to a smart device, such as ruggedised tablet, a smartwatch or via a communications device, or is simply stored on the device for download later if appropriate. Perhaps more importantly, immediate alerts can be raised by the earpiece to enable timely intervention to significantly reduce the risk of injury or, for example, other physiological stresses, or from falling.

The transmission of personal data may be a concern for some construction organisations, especially as they consider the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into play next year. Data communication strategies are implemented to ensure that only data that raises an alert is transmitted to the supervisor enabling immediate actions to be taken, either on site or remotely. Full data can then be sent in real time or retrospectively, if required, directly to a medical practitioner or occupational health for example, for a quicker and more informed response to an emergency or to improve potential return to work strategies.

Forward thinking construction companies implementing new technologies as part of a health and safety management system or risk safety strategy indicate such companies are taking worker safety and wellbeing seriously, and embedding it into their culture. The automated and intuitive experience of an in-ear device means minimal training is required for each construction worker meaning adoption rates are high. Given the complexity of health and safety in the construction sector, a single in-ear device that can monitor the wellbeing of every individual on a site at any given moment is a significant breakthrough, and a cost effective one at that.

Through measuring multiple physiological vital signs, fall detection and noise exposure within a single device and in real-time means warning signs can be identified early enabling rapid intervention, whilst in the longer term improving worker’s overall health and wellbeing, and perhaps reducing the risk of injury as well as costs in fines, compensation and even insurance premiums.

 

Article submitted by Leon Marsh, CEO at Bodytrak

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