Login Register Subscribe
Current Issue

Wearable devices pack outsize safety punch

Reprints

NEW YORK — Wearable technology has advanced from simply storing data to helping prevent or reduce workplace accidents, and can provide employers and insurers with invaluable information, industry analysts said Thursday.

However, that information must be properly stored, processed and protected, they added. 

The panelists at Business Insurance’s 2017 Innovation Summit in New York made their comments during a session about the risks and benefits of wearable technology, noting that wearable devices can be used to increase safety, provide health information, improve working conditions and boost productivity.

David Roy, second vice president for Travelers Cos. Inc.’s Forensic Engineering Laboratory in Windsor, Connecticut, said the marketplace for wearable technology is predicted to reach $34 billion by 2020.

Keying on the safety issue, Mr. Roy said there are 35,000 “struck-by” accidents per year in the United States in construction and manufacturing, resulting in 200 fatalities a year.

“So imagine that little device on your wrist would talk to that fork truck or that fork truck driver, and perhaps prevent that injury,” Mr. Roy said. “It’s coming, it’s here.” 

Mr. Roy noted that the shrinking size of technology is a large factor in the growth of wearables adoption, adding that “your phone has more computing power than NASA’s first space explorations.”

Thomas Ryan, senior principal and director of workers compensation research at Willis Towers Watson P.L.C. in New York, said data obtained from wearables is a huge topic for many risk managers, employers and workers comp coordinators. 

“A big area we’ve seen is predictive analytics,” Mr. Ryan said, “they love to see some way in which predictive analytics can be implemented to evaluate a safe work environment.”

Mr. Ryan said wearables are also being used to encourage employees to adopt a healthier life style, such as tracking how much they walk.

With so many uses, the devices are sometimes subject to overlapping regulations, an attorney on the panel said.

“Is it a clinical device, is it a leisure device, or is it a safety device?” said Miki Kolton, of counsel with the law firm Greenberg Traurig L.L.P. in Washington. “Because you have different definitions based upon the regulatory authority that you’re talking about.”

Ms. Kolton said the use of wearable devices may need to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. An employer’s use of the wearable device will definitely need to comply with applicable state privacy laws along with the rules of the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC regulates those who collect and maintain health data for nonclinical purposes, and employers would need to be familiar with the FTC breach notification requirements. FCC regulations cover permissible frequencies, power levels, duty cycles, band sharing and frequency stability requirements, she said. 

The session included a demonstration of a wearable device by Michael Skorup, sales coordinator for dorsaVi, a Melbourne, Australia-based wearable sensor technology company.

“At the end of the day, movement is movement,” Mr. Skorup said. “It comes back to the employer in terms of how do you interpret this data and, more importantly, how do you change the culture around it?”