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Wearable Technology Could Be Key to Identifying Link Between Worker Fatigue and Workplace Injuries

Sandy Smith

A new research report shows the value of wearable technology to capture safety performance and translate the data into personal fatigue levels.

The American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) Foundation on Jan. 3 released a fatigue research report that shows the value of wearable technology in the workplace. The organizations is encouraging employers to make a New Year’s resolution to monitor the fatigue levels of workers to reduce injuries and increase productivity.

The three-year study was led by Dr. Lora Cavuoto at the University of Buffalo and Dr. Fadel Megahed at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University of Ohio. The project also involved researchers from Auburn University and the University of Dayton. The study, which ended in December, demonstrated how to capture a worker’s safety performance and translate the data into personal fatigue levels.

“When we started, three years ago, interest was growing around optimizing training and playing schedules for professional athletes; tracking training to minimize overexertion and fatigue for athletes, because fatigue and overexertion are precursors to injury,” said Cavuoto.

A survey of workers conducted by Cavuoto and her fellow researchers at the start of the study found that 58 percent of those surveyed self-identified as being fatigued. “We expected it to be high,” she admitted, “but not that high."

The research, funded by the ASSP Foundation, involved 25 participants wearing non-obtrusive wrist, hip and ankle sensors (think Fitbit-type sensors) while completing three tasks commonly performed by manufacturing workers – assembly, stocking and remaining in a static or flexed position. Each person worked in three-hour increments.

The study demonstrated that meaningful safety data can be collected by an employer in a cost-effective manner without interfering with a worker’s daily routine. Employers don’t need to invest in a special suit with 20 sensors to collection a reasonable amount of data about worker fatigue and overexertion that can help target interventions and changes to workplace design said Cavuoto.

“By setting parameters, we identified behavioral changes in how people conduct work over time,” Cavuoto said. “For example, we saw how workers performed the same task in the first hour as compared to the third hour when fatigue became a factor. Wearable technology can uncover precursors to larger problems and help establish safety interventions that may call for scheduled breaks, posture adjustments or vitamin supplements that help the body.”

According to Cavuoto, it’s the first step in creating a comprehensive framework that can identify research-supported interventions that protect workers from injuries caused by being tired on the job. She suggested employers look for commonalities that might be contributing to fatigue, such as the design of the work area, the type of work task, etc. For example, are employees in the packaging department reporting more shoulder pain and injuries? When you can target the data, you can target how to apply it to reduce injuries in the workplace, she added.

“Fatigue is a hidden danger in the workplace, but now we’ve tackled the measurement and modeling of fatigue through wearable sensors, incorporating big data analytics and safety engineering,” Cavuoto said. “Information is power, so knowing when, where and how fatigue impacts worker safety is critical. You can’t identify solutions until you pinpoint the problems.”

Once data is collected, the safety professional should talk to and observe workers to determine where and when they are experiencing discomfort. “Discomfort is an indicator of fatigue. It might not be an injury at that point, but it is a precursor and a predictor,” said Cavuoto.

Cost of Worker Fatigue Is High

According to the National Safety Council, fatigue costs U.S. employers more than $130 billion a year in health-related lost productivity. In addition, more than 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder.

A typical U.S. company with 1,000 employees can expect to lose more than $1 million each year to fatigue, which can often increase the workloads of other human operators. This phenomenon has been reported in advanced manufacturing, warehousing, truck driving, construction and other occupations.

“The collection of data is found everywhere in the workplace – in production, in quality – and it’s going to continue pushing into safety,” said Cavuoto. “Using data will allow us to be more proactive in our solutions to reduce worker injuries."

The fatigue research report is available on the ASSP Foundation’s web page. It is one of many research initiatives expected over the next several years in support of ASSP’s goal to elevate occupational safety and health worldwide. A repository of the research papers and code resulting from the project is available at the team’s ResearchGate project folder.

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January 04, 2019 @ 01:54 PM EST Manufacturing, Construction, Automotive, Airlines, Energy - Oil and Gas Health & Safety

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