New research on wearable technology in high-risk work environments to help make workers safer has been given a million dollar funding boost.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has awarded the grant to Dr Judy Bowen and her team, Associate Professor Annika Hinze and Professor Rangi Matamua, at the University of Waikato.
There has been a boom in fitness and personal trackers as well as smartwatches that gather personal metrics such as heart-rate, activity levels and hydration levels. Add in environmental factors such as temperature and location, and you may be able to support worker safety by identifying levels of fatigue or unsafe work conditions. But Dr Bowen says there is little scientific evidence to show that the proposed technology can be used in this way in practice. “We did some experimentation with various commercial solutions being offered to businesses, which were promising great things. When we experimented with them in real-world work situations we found they didn’t always live up to some of their promises.”
The research will also look at the impact of personal data collection and its cultural value (living tāonga), commercial value (ownership) and ethical value (management use). Dr Bowen says the big problem they’re looking at is the invasion of privacy involved. She is suggesting the radical idea that workers be able to own their data themselves, and even share it with family, whanau, iwi and communities to help keep them safe. “Saying to workers we want to monitor your sleep when you’re at home and not on the job. Then what happens to the data, and who does it belong to? What if a business gets some data that suggests a worker is fatigued? Do they send them home, and do they keep paying them? And because someone is fatigued it is not a one-on-one correlation that they will cause an accident, so we will also consider where the balance lies.”
Work-related accidents and injuries currently cost New Zealand more than $3 billion annually. Dr Bowen has already done several years of research with forestry workers - a sector in which 30 workers have been killed on the job since 2013. Some of the upcoming research will involve them again. Once the researchers have decided what data they want to gather, they will turn sensors into wearable things. Dr Bowen says it is know that heart rate variability (HRV - which is variation among the intervals between your heartbeats) can be a good indicator of fatigue. “Using light-based wrist measurements is fairly inaccurate. It works better with chest straps, but our research with forestry workers has shown they are uncomfortable if you wear them all day and so workers have a tendency to take them off or move them, as they are a bit irritating when you’re doing hard physical work. So we’re looking at putting that technology into a compression shirt, just something you can wear. Then we’ll see what other kinds of other sensors we can put in there.”
PhD student Chris Griffiths was involved in the earlier forestry worker research. He died at the beginning of this year after a short illness. He was awarded a posthumous MPhil , just before the new funding was announced. Dr Bowen says he remained actively involved in the research until his death, and the grant means that areas of the work he was focussing on will continue.