Wearable technology for ergonomics training – is it oversold?

Wearable technology has been gaining in popularity. In the workplace, wearable technology is being developed to monitor productivity, to identify safety hazards such as exposure to radiation, gas leaks, heat, or proximity to vehicles, to provide instruction to workers, and to promote health and wellness. Most of us are  familiar with fitness or step trackers, worn on the wrist. Many other types of sensors are becoming available, including ones that can “reward” good behaviour, detect fatigue through different motion patterns, and even prevent a driver from falling asleep. (https://www.thesafetymag.com/ca/topics/technology/wearables-transforming-safety-management-in-high-risk-industries/184109)

Today’s article focuses on the use of wearables in training, and more specifically training that encourages ergonomic work practices. This type of technology typically monitors a worker’s body position and provides feedback when an undesirable position is used. The marketing claims are incredible; Soter Analytics, for example, promises “up to 86% reduction in back and shoulder ergonomic injuries”. The Reflex wearable by Kinetic promises a “50-60%” reduction in injury frequency. How do they work? Can behaviour modification really reduce risk this effectively?  Widely referenced research by Goggins, summarizing the results of many studies, suggested that we might expect only a modest 10-20% reduction in injuries through behaviour modification.

When an ergonomist assesses a manual handling task, our analysis tools suggest that load weight, hand height, forward reach, grip interface, handling frequency and duration, and asymmetric loading are some of the most important hazards. These tools focus primarily on the height/reach effect, and they assume that the worker typically has control over these aspects of the lift.

A wearable device on the worker’s back might beep or vibrate when the worker bends at the waist, thereby encouraging the worker to squat rather than bend. A wearable device on the arm might remind workers to step closer to the object to reduce forward reaching. (One device cannot monitor back and arm movements at the same time, but some can be used for either, depending on where the device is mounted.) Such a device could also track how often a worker bends or reaches, providing safety managers with information about workplace hazards and behaviour.  Wearable technology is also available to monitor heat stress, and energy demands (steps or heart rate), but we won’t focus as much on these today. Today, I’d like to explore how wearables are used to change worker behaviour by providing feedback.

A key concern with adopting wearable technology in the workplace is employee acceptance and adherence Employee acceptance of wearable technology in the workplace (sciencedirectassets.com) Rightfully so – wearables may affect concentration and could distract workers through their feedback. Imagine hearing a beep every time you bend to place a label. Moreover, imagine the symphony of beeps when employees in an area bend in unison. Now, imagine that the job, by its very design, requires bending and reaching. The worker must reach forward 75 cm to remove a defective item from a conveyor. How does this worker feel about being “beeped” when there truly is no other way to complete the task? How does the worker with bad knees feel about being forced to squat to retrieve a part from a bin? What message is the employer sending to the employee, by using this technology as its primary intervention for strain/sprain injuries?

Assuming you want to proceed with wearables, you should consider:

– their accuracy (If you are making decisions based on the data, how well does it measure what you need to know?)

– how time-consuming they are to put on and take off (Every minute away from the job is a minute of lost productivity. Will you gain that back?)

– how comfortable they are (If they are hot, or the straps create friction or pressure, workers won’t want to wear them.)

– what data is provided to the worker, and how (If the device makes loud sounds, or vibrates, it may become annoying in situations where the undesirable posture is truly not avoidable, or is actually preferable over another, worse posture.)

– battery life (Every battery needs its charge. How will this be managed?)

– wireless connection stability

– data management (How will the data be stored and used? Is the worker’s anonymity protected? Who will process the data and what questions will it answer?)

– cost (Will every employee be provided with a device? What will the total cost of the project be? Do you expect to benefit enough to warrant the expense?)

– whether this is the right tool for your workplace. (Are the strain/sprain hazards in your workplace truly under the control of the worker?)


At Taylor’d Ergo, we develop hazard-specific training that is based on the ergonomic work strategies identified by experienced workers. We work with these employees to find the strategies that they use for specific tasks, and we use a biomechanical model to “prove” how each strategy works. We then create practical training to promote them, and to allow employees to experience the difference that the ergo work strategy makes. This type of training is invaluable for work that involves unique demands, like wrenching, operating heavy equipment, or patient handling.

We also developed lifting training that encompasses 15 safe lifting strategies that apply for manual handlers who lift boxes. Most of these strategies would not be detectable via wearable feedback. “Keep the lumbar curve intact” might be captured when an employee bends forward. And a wearable might detect and correct twisting. When these techniques are the focus of attention, we would love to use technology to reinforce correct performance. Avoiding bending and twisting are important tips, to be sure, but not the only ones.

A wearable device would not notice whether a worker tested an unfamiliar load before lifting it, had good footing and a firm grip on the object, or how effectively two people lifted together. It wouldn’t notice whether the worker pulled the load close before lifting it or used the golfer’s lift appropriately. It can’t tell that the worker is supporting the upper body by leaning with one hand (as shown in the image above). My point is that there is more to safe lifting than keeping the back straight. And while we agree that it might be amazing to have a little birdy on our shoulders, reminding us to do the right thing, the technology is not smart enough to choose the best techniques for any given situation. We believe that workers are capable of learning these techniques! And we believe that employers still need encouragement to improve jobs so bending and twisting are not inherently required in the workplace.

Need some help with hazard specific training? Contact us! We’re embarking on a research project to evaluate the effectiveness of a targeting microlearning program, and we’re looking for partners.

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