Wearable PPE Tech: The Future of Workplace Safety

By Kevin Ritchart

Most safety products are designed to protect you when accidents happen or help you respond to the aftermath, but what if your gear could actually warn you about hazards before they occur?

Wearable personal protective equipment (PPE) is going high-tech. Some of the latest iterations can record biometrics like body temperature, heart rate, and respiration on a continuous basis. This new technology is providing valuable insight regarding employee health in the workplace.

Ishan Sehgal, program director for Watson IoT Solutions with IBM, points out that this wearable technology can now become an integral part of workplace safety programs. It also can help eliminate accidents related to worker overexertion.

These wearable biometric devices come in many forms. IBM produces wristbands, helmets, hardhats, and smart clothing, all of which are equipped with sophisticated sensors.

How It Can Help

According to IBM, the sensors can capture biometric and environmental data to identify when a worker has fallen, shut down machinery if a worker gets too close, monitor changes in temperature or air quality, and even flag a worker’s vital signs if they’re showing signs of illness at the start of their shift.

While the new products are already proving themselves useful on job sites, IBM officials don’t see the wearable PPE technology as a replacement for traditional workplace safety programs. Instead, they should serve as tools for helping improve the implementation of safety policies and emergency response procedures by removing some of the guesswork from the equation.

Practical Applications

The devices can be used in a variety of commercial and industrial environments, according to Sehgal. They can be useful in warehouses, outdoor operations, and mining and construction sites.

While Sehgal acknowledges that the technology is still relatively new to the market, many workplaces are already launching pilot programs to determine where the devices will be most useful.

"The ultimate value lies in eliminating on-the-job injuries and unplanned downtime and boosting productivity."

Helmet manufacturer GuardHat has been working closely with IBM to combine hardware and software to create an integrated monitoring system in a line of smart helmets. With origins in the mining industry, these helmets can track biometric signs as well as environmental measurements like ambient gas content in the air.

In addition to the real-time monitoring, these devices also can generate data that helps managers gain a broader picture of overall employee performance, site conditions, and trends relating to productivity and health.

Privacy Concerns

While the information gleaned from these devices is useful to be sure, there’s an issue of privacy that should be considered. Once wearable PPE finds its way to their job site, will some workers feel that the monitoring practices are overly intrusive?

IBM officials point out that they don’t keep or control the data that’s collected, and the company strives to comply with strict data protection measures like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Sehgal also points out that the wearable PPE tools provide users with the option of purging data at the end of each day, shutting off monitoring capability during break periods, and helping ensure anonymity in off-the-job situations.

An Eye Toward the Future

Companies interested in the implementation of wearable PPE will be charged with educating workers on both their use and limitations. The ultimate value lies in eliminating on-the-job injuries and unplanned downtime and boosting productivity.

The price of wearable PPE technology that’s designed for industrial use is still relatively low, primarily because of past reliance on older safety aids like gas detectors, warning lights, motion detectors, and vests. This should allow more companies to integrate wearable PPE into everyday operations.

The popularity of wearable PPE technology is expected to increase in the years to come, especially as prices continue to drop and the ability to process large amounts of data continues to rise.