This is the world we live and work in right now:

  • Drones are used in the insurance underwriting process. There were at least thirteen Federal Aviation Administration exemptions granted in 2015 alone for insurers to use drones to collect data about potential risks.
  • Drawings, plans, and specifications can be brought to a job site on a single electronic device weighing less than a pound.
  • Anyone can buy a device to wear on their wrist to monitor heart rate, location, and physical activity. In fact, analysts predict that shipments of such devices will top 135 million in 2018.

In this world, it should seem elementary that wearable technologies - devices integrated into clothing - are gaining a great deal of momentum in risk management. At least one major carrier announced in 2016 that it was investing in a technology start-up that is developing wearable safety technologies and the systems to analyze the metrics such technologies produce. So, while you can probably put off learning how to use artificial intelligence-controlled flying robots and nanomachines on the jobsite, you should start becoming familiar with the new safety tools becoming available to construction workers everywhere.

Connected from Head-to-Toe

The idea is that more real-time data will make the job site safer. If you know that an unprepared worker is straying into an active excavation area, you can warn that worker not to proceed and stop her from being injured. If you know that a laborer’s heart rate is dangerously high, you can sit him down and find out if he needs medical care. In short, data enables you to prevent or minimize injury and costly claims.

Where does the data come from?

Sensors, cameras, and gyroscopes are now small enough and cheap enough to be embedded into just about any article of clothing. The technology to put such devices into hard hats, safety vests, and wrist bands is already ubiquitous; the Apple Watch and the Fitbit are just two well-known examples. In order to get the data from the sensors to the office, the worker may have to carry a company-issued smart phone. To get technical, the sensor transmits the data by short-range Bluetooth to the smart phone, and the smart phone connects to the wireless carrier’s network or the site-wide Wi-Fi in order to upload the information to the office.

That is where things get really interesting. The data can be simply stored for use in the event that there is a claim. It can be stored for periodic review to enable the risk management team to develop more effective safety programs. The data can also be checked at regular intervals by members of the risk management team to take site safety “snapshots.” But some companies are going further and developing software that can automatically alert workers and managers when specified safety events occur.

What data can be collected?

GPS location data, biometric data, and environmental data can be collected. This can include simple metrics like a numeric temperature, or a live audio and video feed. Here are some examples:

  • Movement including bending and lifting activities;
  • Heart rate;
  • Location and proximity to hazards including hazardous equipment;
  • Air quality;
  • Temperature;
  • Sound levels; and,
  • Lighting.

Out with the Old, in with the New

With the potential safety improvements come new risks. First and foremost, all of this personal data is subject to privacy and data security concerns. Even as these new technologies make the workplace safer and, in turn, lower insurance premiums, they increase the need for robust cyber security and cyber insurance coverage programs.

Upgrade your data plan. The connected jobsite will connect via a wireless carrier’s network or a well-propagated and maintained Wi-Fi network. There will also be costs for preserving all of the data collected; the more intensive the data collection program, the more it will require storage either locally on networked drives, or in the cloud.

Whole new problems will arise. If, for example, your workers are wearing vest-mounted “kill switches” that turn off dangerous machinery when they are in proximity, what happens if the system simply fails? Sometimes Bluetooth fails to pair to the portable device (think about your car and your cell phone). Sometimes there is environmental interference. And then there is the issue of workers opting out of safety programs that feel too intrusive.

The upshot is the same as it always is with any technological advance: it’s on its way, it’s here to stay, but it would be foolish to toss out what is working right now. Risk management professionals should understand and implement these exciting new technologies, but they should be used to bolster an already robust safety program.