It could be the future of keeping workers safe on the job.
By Alexandra Walsh
Advances in smart technology are creating new ways to protect workers by enhancing personal protective equipment on the job. Smart safety devices can respond to workers’ bodies as well as their environment to deliver crucial information to both the worker and his or her supervisor before accidents happen.
The smart PPE trend has already caught on in industries like mining, oil and gas, manufacturing, and transportation. For example, smart location devices are popping up in the mining industry that keep tabs on miners’ locations. And fatigue monitors are detecting micro-sleeps such as nodding off before drowsy driving puts drivers at risk.
Apps for this type of technology are promising. But like any new technology, the adoption of smart PPE has its challenges.
Smart safety devices can respond to workers’ bodies as well as their environment to deliver crucial information to both the worker and his or her supervisor before accidents happen.
How It Works
Smart PPE is part of the larger movement for a connected workforce to improve safety and achieve operational excellence. It refers to smart wearable equipment that connects to the internet or other devices like Bluetooth to deliver real-time safety information to workers in the field and managers offsite.
Often in the form of wearables, smart PPE can track movements, send voice messages, monitor body temperature, issue alerts, and record audio or video messages. They are often paired with a cloud-based analytics platform, and sometimes with a smartphone app too.
There are thousands of different data points smart PPE can capture and track, which can be used to address any number of safety concerns—everything from fever to heat exhaustion to fatigue to improper lifting.
Innovative PPE Trends
Smart PPE devices worn on the worker’s body cover a range of protection and benefits.
Head Devices: Smart PPE helmets can connect to the internet or Bluetooth and deliver safety information to the wearer or others in the field, as well as collect data, adjust to conditions, and warn of hazards. Smart helmets detect impact, free falls, temperature, humidity, brightness, and more.
Business owners can program the chips in smart helmets many ways to improve safety. They can insert GPS tracking systems to map workers’ locations on large or sparsely populated, remote worksites. Helmets can also be programmed to warn wearers if they are close to hazards with an alarm. This location information can help prevent accidents.
Face Devices: Earmuffs and face masks can improve communication in areas surrounded by loud noise or low visibility.
Smart PPE eyewear adds benefits beyond traditional safety glasses, especially on hazardous worksites. Data can be delivered inside the eyewear in a display in the corner of the lens so the wearer can monitor changing data. Smart tech safety glasses can also prevent people from entering a hazardous area if they are not wearing the glasses.
One example of wearable smart PPE already in use in the field is an in-ear device used for physiological monitoring of key vital signs such as core body temperature, heart rate, oxygen consumption, and motion (including fall detection). The in-ear device also provides two-way audio communications and features both hearing protection and ambient sound transparency.
Hand Devices: Smart PPE gloves are another way that technology can boost safety on the jobsite. Near-field communication (NFC) chips built into the gloves allow users to connect with information on their phone or tablet. The gloves are customized to communicate with machines. As infrastructure adapts over time, the data transmitted by NFC chips can also be changed.
NFC chips in gloves can allow users to scan data sheets and access information, such as the safety of chemicals and compounds. The chips can also guarantee that workers wear safety gloves, or the correct gloves, for handling hazards. Safety gloves can behave like swipe cards on products and may prevent wearers from entering dangerous areas or risking cross-contamination.
Foot Devices: Chips may also be embedded in the soles of safety shoes to add the ability to detect dangerous conditions such as slip hazards. Additional features might be the ability to notify wearers of something as simple as they haven’t fastened their shoes properly.
Other Devices: Sensors embedded in clothing can monitor elements in the environment—gas, chemicals, heat, sound, impacts—and then notify supervisors of these dangers.
Smart PPE workwear can also incorporate 3-D gesture detection technology so that messages can be communicated, allowing the operation of devices without physical contact in hazardous environments.
Another example is a wearable armband that gathers real-time data on environmental conditions, potentially hazardous human motion, proximity, and other risks. The device also allows workers to record voice memos and other observations.
What Lies Ahead
There’s a proliferation of devices, fabrics, and platforms because the smart PPE market has changed dramatically over the past decade and is crowded with both established companies and startups.
Smart tech segments in personal protective equipment companies are also increasing rapidly. Rapid growth means there are more companies offering more choices and new devices to protect workers.
There’s optimism, but there are still barriers to adopting smart PPE. With all new technology, there’s a steep learning curve. And when a worker’s life depends on a smart wearable device, it needs to work properly every time. Unfortunately, there are no current minimum requirements for device performance, so backups may be necessary.
As more companies begin investing in smart PPE, they are faced with the issue of keeping sensitive personal information secure. How do companies protect worker privacy? What happens if the devices malfunction and an accident occurs? How do companies encourage employees to wear and engage with the technology?
And right now, the price of smart PPE devices is prohibitive for many companies. In time, as these technologies become more mainstream, a number of these problems are likely to be solved.
Today, many billion-dollar companies still use basic software programs or pen and paper to record safety information. And workers probably won’t be decked out in wearables within the next five years. But while there is still much progress needed before smart PPE becomes prevalent in the construction industry, technology and hardware advances are refining existing smart PPE and bringing forward new developments all the time.
Whether or not smart PPE is ever widely adopted, one thing is for sure: health and safety technology is evolving, and it’s important to keep up. Better, smarter PPE is a reminder to companies and workers alike of what really matters: staying safe on the job and going home to loved ones at the end of each day.