Danger sensors: How wearable military electronics can prevent work accidents

Occupational safety concerns have led to a new class of worker wearables. But can they overcome longstanding barriers?
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Workplace accidents are a huge problem in the U.S., where costs from occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities have exceeded $250 billion annually. Addressing these problems requires a multi-pronged approach across a variety of sectors, but technology, and particularly flexible sensors that can alert workers and managers to danger at the earliest opportunity, may become a useful weapon in the fight for safer workplaces.

The technology has had a trial run in the military. Through initial R&D with the military, a company called Aptima first zeroed in on addressing dangerous work environments for soldiers – namely confined spaces in the presence of dangerous fumes and chemicals, or areas where workers face far greater risk of injury or death when inadequately monitored, working alone or remotely. 

Through partnerships with NextFlex, the U.S. Air Force, and Lockheed Marin, Aptima has developed an IoT approach to worker wearable technology by fusing a combination of environmental, human, and locational data from the worker, analyzing it in the cloud, and providing real-time detection and alerting through its SafeGuard software platform.

During the pandemic, the idea of wearables for tracking exposure has become commonplace in many settings, including pharmaceutical manufacturing and logistics. However, major barriers still exist. As described in a 2018 paper on the topic in the journal Human Factors, "Barriers to the Adoption of Wearable Sensors in the Workplace: A Survey of Occupational Safety and Health Professionals," authors Mark C Schall JrRichard F Sesek, and Lora A Cavuoto conducted a survey of nearly 1000 individuals wherein half of respondents reported being in favor of using wearable sensors to track OSH-related risk factors and relevant exposure metrics at their respective workplaces. 

"However," the authors write, "barriers including concerns regarding employee privacy/confidentiality of collected data, employee compliance, sensor durability, the cost/benefit ratio of using wearables, and good manufacturing practice requirements were described as challenges precluding adoption."

The authors concluded that "the broad adoption of wearable technologies appears to depend largely on the scientific community's ability to successfully address the identified barriers." It's not clear that's happened yet, although it does seem the pandemic has gone some way toward shifting attitudes toward monitoring.

There's also a tailwind for this technology. In January, President Biden signed an executive order protecting worker health and safety and pushing for additional resources to help employers protect employees. Addressing hazardous workplaces -- due to COVID-19 or even the physical work environment itself -- through technological advancements has become a clarion call and may be critical to saving millions of workers' lives.

After working with the military, Aptima zeroed in on addressing dangerous workplace environments using similar technology applications. Research showed that there is a dire need for occupational safety in defense and industrial systems, so the company immediately began its journey to commercializing a multi-use solution that uses wearables and intelligent monitoring as its core. Aptima spun off a venture-backed company called Sentinel in late 2020 to offer its occupational safety platform in an as-a-service model. Sentinel's SafeGuard platform fuses together wearable sensor data, AI analytics, and operational context to personalize worker safety monitoring and continuously monitor workers in a variety of dangerous occupational settings.

With over $10M in investments from the DoD and private sectors, Aptima is applying its solution to any multi-domain organizations requiring personnel to operate in risk-laden environments. It could be a bellwether for further wearable sensor technology aimed at worker safety.

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