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Wearable devices could help employers improve the health and safety of their workers.
Ranging from Fitbit Inc. fitness trackers to the Chairless Chair, experts say there’s a place for wearables in the workplace.
However, since each product supports different applications and functions — such as tracking vital signs, movement or facilitating communication — one device will not fit all situations.
Wearables can simplify work processes, said Gordon Clemons, Charlotte, North Carolina- and Irvine, California-based chairman and CEO of third-party administrator CorVel Corp.
Mr. Clemons compared such devices to using a touch-tone telephone vs. a rotary dial: “You realize you were doing work you didn’t have to do,” he said.
Companies large and small are getting in the wearables game.
BP P.L.C., the oil and gas company, provides employees with Fitbit fitness trackers, offering them lower health insurance premiums if they reach 1 million steps in one year, a spokesman said.
Globe Holding Co. L.L.C.’s Wearable Advanced Sensor Platform shirt is meant to keep firefighters safe. The flame-resistant, moisture-wicking T-shirt contains sensors that track the wearer’s heart rate, respiration rate and other factors. And the Pittsfield, New Hampshire company also makes a belt, with a unit the size of a deck of cards to provide location data in GPS-denied areas, a firefighter can wear around the waist.
Because of the high costs and privacy concerns regarding certain wearables, it will take time for them to get traction with employers, said Jake Steinerman, the Midland, Michigan-based co-founder and team lead for
app developer DriveSafe. But that hasn’t stopped him from developing an app for Google Glass, which is worn like eyeglasses and functions like a smartphone, to alert drivers when their eyes begin to close.
Mr. Steinerman, whose idea came from a long, tiring drive, began working on DriveSafe with his team after he was selected as one of 8,000 Glass Explorers last year. The Explorer program, open to anyone willing to spend $1,500 on Glass, is the only way now to buy a Google Glass prototype.
DriveSafe still is being fine-tuned, but “there’s been a lot of interest from insurance companies and other companies that develop software and some hardware for the trucking and shipping industry,” Mr. Steinerman said. “That’s really where we see a lot of potential on the road, for these guys who are driving 12 to 14 hours or more a day.”
As the cost of Google Glass drops and more apps are developed, the Glass technology “will be built right into protective goggles,” he said. “What we’ve started to see is a bigger push and better-use cases today for industry as opposed to the consumer market.”
Patrick Jackson, a firefighter in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, developed another Google Glass app that gives firefighters hands-free access to information such as building floor plans, extraction diagrams for vehicles and fire hydrant locations, according to the Explorer program website.
Not all wearable devices promoting safety and health track vital signs or facilitate communication.
The Chairless Chair, for example, provides lightweight leg supports that act as an exoskeleton, relieving stress on leg muscles and joints when locked in a sitting position, said inventor Keith Gunura, the Zurich-based CEO and co-founder of the company noonee, so named as a play on “new knee” or “no knee problems.”
The exoskeleton, which is attached with straps at the waist and thighs, allows workers who are typically on their feet to sit, but still stand, walk or run when it’s not activated, Mr. Gunura said.
While it doesn’t offer Bluetooth capabilities or enhance strength, it does aim to prevent workers from developing musculoskeletal disorders after spending years on their feet, he said.
Car manufactures have expressed interest in piloting the Chairless Chair in Germany, Mr. Gunura said. BMW A.G. reportedly is starting production line trials this month, and Audi A.G. will do so later this year. Neither could be reached for comment.
Innovent Technologies L.L.C., a Peabody, Massachusetts, manufacturer of components and systems used in making computer chips, is another potential customer.
Innovent President Felix Twaalfhoven said many of the company’s 55 employees stand during their shift because it’s hard to find a narrow enough chair that’s the right height so operators can still move around.
“The guys in the factory were enthusiastic,” Mr. Twaalfhoven said. “They elected to try this out and they have asked me to continue to work with Keith to see when we might get the next model.”
Noonee won’t disclose the price of the Chairless Chair until the final model is ready, but Mr. Gunura said it’s more affordable than many wearable devices because of the absence of digital technology.
There could be a future Chairless Chair model that collects data, such as usage, but “now is not the time,” he said.
Despite cost and privacy hesitations, more employers will start to see the value wearables can bring to workplaces, experts say.
As PC World Editor-in-Chief Jon Phillips wrote earlier this year, “The future of smartglasses will be realized by a factory worker operating a 3,000-pound stamp press, not a gamer stomping on virtual-reality bad guys.”
Employers should prepare for thorny privacy and liability issues likely to emerge with the growing popularity of wearable devices, such as Google Glass, and their inevitable appearance in the workplace.