Making wearables a good fit for workplace safety

How CIOs can ensure that wearable computing generates value and increased safety

By Himananshu Sareen

Despite advancements in workplace and enterprise technology in recent years, over 1.1 million employees (.pdf) are injured on the job every year in the United States. Not only does this result in potentially life threatening scenarios, but monetary losses stemming from lost productivity are considerable.

According to a National Safety Council report, a single fatal injury on the job can cost an enterprise more than $1.4 million. In the same way that automobile manufacturers invest in technology to improve safety, enterprises with employees who face life threatening work should follow. Assuring the safety of workers is now more attainable than ever thanks to wearable computing devices.

In addition to the safety and health of employees, insurance and repair costs are another burden that can be alleviated by a smart use of wearables.

A Safer and More Responsive Workplace

In January 2012, a supervisor working at an Arcelor Mittal Burns Harbor steel mill suffered fatal injuries from a faulty steam pipe. As the worker heard noises coming from the pipe, he walked over to inspect. Unfortunately the pipe burst and fatally burned the employee.

Although some accidents are impossible to prevent, this was not one of them. In an age of embedded sensors and smart machines, such a scenario can, and should, be prevented. In the future such faulty steam pipes can be embedded with low-cost sensors by using technology such as Ambient Backscatter. A project from Washington State, Ambient Backscatter enables wireless communication with the devices around us. With such technology already in existence, a smarter facility will be a reality in the upcoming years.

Such low-cost and low-energy sensors can be used to create smart steam pipes that communicate with a wearable headset. Data regarding temperature, pressure and other metrics can stream directly to a supervisors wearable device. Certain conditions that lead to a pipe burst can potentially signal a notification to other employee devices to clear the area.

In the previously mentioned accident, the worker would have had no need to increase proximity to the dangerous pipe if such a system were in place. Steel mills, nuclear reactors and high tech maintenance occupations can also benefit from such technology.

IT Innovation Will Need to Follow Suit

In order to gain optimal value from wearable devices, IT departments will need to innovate in terms of software applications, data management and administrative protocols and policies.

At Icreon Tech, our software development team has already had the chance to tinker with apps for Samsung Galaxy Gear and other wearables. As software development acclimates to the screen real-estate and varying interfaces, enterprises will begin to see the benefit. In addition to needed progress in the software space, data retention policies must evolve to define how long video and microphone feeds can be kept. Access to sensitive biometric data stemming from employee wearables will also need to be defined.

Policies will need to be created for employees using their own wearable devices, similar to Bring Your Own Device policies for smartphones and tablets. Separation of personal data from enterprise applications and storage will be critical.

Container solutions similar to Samsung KNOX for smartphones, will be ideal for ensuring security and access to confidential corporate data. Citrix VP of Mobility Solutions, Chris Fleck, holds the opinion that BYOD approaches will work best for IT managers reigning in wearable computers:

"For IT managers, the most straight-forward solution would be a BYOD scenario where IT could manage only data and apps, but the devices and personal data would be managed by the employee..."

Specifically in regards to health-related information and visual or audio feeds, the success of wearable computing implementations will rest with secure and transparent administrative policies.

By creating a cogent strategy for protecting employee information while simultaneously securing corporate data, enterprise wearables can enhance operations without weakening IT infrastructure. The key to success for wearables in the enterprise will hang on the balance between Big Brother type monitoring and legitimate employee value.

About Himananshu Sareen: Himanshu is responsible for the strategic and overall business development of Icreon, a leading IT consultancy in its space. He founded Icreon in 2000 and grew the company through a mix of acquisitions and organic growth.

Related Articles:
Wearables will wow them in Vegas
Juniper Research joins chorus on exploding wearable device market