Social Scientist Jo Bowen, of HSE’s Foresight Centre, takes a look at the development and growing adoption of wearable health and safety ‘smart technology’, and considers the implications this might have for the future working world.
Here’s a teaser for you. What, according to networking equipment giant Cisco, is the similarity between the room-sized ENIAC defence computer used by the US Army in the 1950s and the tiny microchip commonly found nowadays in musical greetings cards?
The answer is that they both possess the same processing power. Yep. One was used to calculate the feasibility of thermonuclear weaponry, the other emits a burbly rendition of “Happy Birthday to You”. This just illustrates the extent to which technology continues to get smaller and more powerful as time passes. Tiny computers have infiltrated almost every area of our lives. We even use them to monitor aspects of our personal health and wellbeing, via wearable smart technology.
Smart health technology in the work place
Information and communications technology (ICT) has progressed beyond simply tracking and measuring our movements to gauge fitness (have you done your 10,000 steps today?) and is now capable of monitoring vital signs that can give indications of health risks.
Smart, wearable technology may have a significant impact on the workplace over the next few years. By 2025 it’s expected that people will become increasingly reliant on – and trusting of – digital health monitoring and advice dispensed by machine algorithms. It’s reckoned that by 2018, employees in the USA will be using more than 13 million fitness devices, with the UK likely to follow suit.
As wearable tech becomes more easily available and more affordable, businesses are increasingly evaluating the use of smart technology as a tool for enhancing productivity and improving communications and employee health.
We already use smart devices such as phones, watches and identity badges in the workplace and these are being joined by smart clothing including gloves, helmets and shoes. But now – and this is where the miniaturisation of technology I mentioned earlier comes into play – novel smart devices including smart contact lenses and even temporary tattoos that feature tiny cameras, sensors and antennae are also in development.
It’s likely that the use of smart wearable technology both in the workplace and at home will continue to grow, with devices able to gather and analyse data on health factors such as stress, fatigue, temperature, respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, activity intensity, calories burned and sleep patterns. Workers are being incentivised to share their personal health data, including data from outside work. Although taking part in workplace health and welfare schemes is voluntary, employers may use people’s emotional responses – such as the desire to be ‘one of the team’ – to encourage participation in those who are reluctant to sign up.
Interestingly, the majority of people seem to be willing to share their personal health data as long as they feel they will get some benefit in return. NHS research indicates considerable public support for the use of anonymised patient data, even where there are low levels of understanding about data use and sharing. That said, employers will need to protect personal data and to ensure the prevention of unfair or discriminatory treatment of employees; employment contracts and policies will need to be amended accordingly.
What might this mean for occupational health and safety?
It’s possible that some aspects of work can benefit from the availability of more task and employee monitoring data. Smart devices worn by employees could help by providing tutorials, prompts and real-time health and safety monitoring and feedback, thereby contributing to the maintenance and improvement of workplace health and safety.
However, these benefits need to be considered against the potential for employee stress that could arise from the possible unfair or discriminatory use of collected smart data. Employees might also feel pressured to conform to desirable health and fitness characteristics in order to keep up with team-based workplace health initiatives.
What do you think about wearable tech in the workplace? Would you wear smart contact lenses? Let us know your thoughts and opinions by leaving a comment below.