We are all familiar with the way that the internet has changed the way we communicate, work, socialise and play over the last two decades.  The internet is now generating the beginnings of a second seismic shift – the explosion of the Internet of Things (IoT) which will fundamentally change your workplace as well as your home. 

Just as you are connecting more and more ‘things’ to make your home and your car connected, so has begun the connection of everything in the industrial workplace so that it can be monitored and regulated – pulled by two key drivers – the desire to increase productivity and improve health and safety. 

The technology will be used to drive productivity in a number of ways.  Sensors embedded in every piece of plant and machinery will monitor usage, predict breakdowns before they happen, recommend when to replace parts to prevent downtime, and even schedule the renting out of that machinery to be used during downtime by the owner’s own operations. 

Bodycams attached to garments can be used to create industrial worker digital twins – the streaming of one engineer’s on site view back to a second, perhaps more experienced engineer sat in an office on the other side of the world, who can advise on what action to take.  Head-mounted displays can be used to view plant, with augmented reality information superimposed on top in the form of plans and checklists to speed tasks, and improve the order of workflow.  Alternatively, flexible displays will be built into the sleeves of PPE garments.

All these activities involve taking data to and from devices and sending it real-time via the internet from one place to another, and storing it for later analysis. 

It is inevitable that the use of this technology will be extended to improve the safety of the workforce, by increasingly using sensors to monitor in real-time, potential environmental threats within the space in which a group of workers operate. These sensors will generate immediate alerts for threats such as gas, or noise or heat or cold. 

Many of these sensor devices exist today.  Most of them are standalone devices which today alert the wearer, but do not alert co-workers or the control room.  Manufacturers are beginning to incorporate Bluetooth and comms such as cellular or wifi into these devices which will allow them to send alerts and other data to co-workers and the control room.

With fall in cost of individual electronic sensors, and the reduction in cost of cloud computing, it is increasingly viable to kit out individual workers with a range of sensors to protect them from harm, all ‘things’ in the Internet of Things.  Not only can this provide improved safety since now each worker is individually protected and alarmed/alerted, but the data collected from each device each day can be stored for later analysis.  By combining the data streams from multiple devices over time, it is possible to use predictive analytics to begin to determine which worker is most at risk from what source, where and when, allowing preventative action to be taken.  Similarly, by combining the data feeds from multiple workers, we can heatmap problems and pinpoint where action needs to be taken.

By building a picture of exposure of each worker to environmental threats over days, weeks, months and years, we have the opportunity to significantly improve occupational health monitoring in areas such as exposure to noise or vibration or dust, as well as creating a factual record of historic exposure – whether for good or bad.

However, these sensors are today quite big and bulky.  Incorporating them into or onto the PPE a worker already wears, and connecting them to a washable electronic network already embedded in the organisation’s standard PPE garments – vests and jackets – is a convenient way of delivering the connected worker.  In time, smart connectors integrated into the garments and delivering power up from a central hub, and data back down from each connected device to that hub, will enable us to dispense with batteries and comms contained in each sensor device, allowing them to become smaller, lighter and much cheaper.  In turn this will enable us to kit out each worker with many more sensor devices, which in turn will improve the data sets we monitor for each worker at risk in hazardous areas.

The delivery of this vision depends upon a number of elements – both physical and ethical. 
Good comms in and around the workplace is a central requirement for real-time monitoring. Comms in confined spaces is an issue. ATEX certification for the physical hardware – the garments, sensors, hubs will be required for their use in the most hazardous environments, where the value of deployment is greatest.  Electronic networks embedded in garments capable of withstanding industrial washing will be required.

The vision depends upon individuals ultimately making a judgement as to whether their increased health and safety is worth the inevitable resultant invasion of privacy and recording of health information.  However, consider this – a real life incident: you are walking across a site and fall down a hole.  You are not found for seven hours by your colleagues.  Did you want to be monitored when you were walking?  Would you have wished you had been tracked whilst you sat in the hole?  General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) will provide overriding requirements across industry and will afford some protections. 

But inevitably, each enterprise and workforce will determine where the red lines are drawn in this challenging new world.  It could be that those that draw the red lines too tightly will fail to benefit from the march of technology, resulting in suboptimal productivity increases and competitive disadvantage, or alternatively simply speed the march of their replacement by robots. 

Companies have the opportunity to put a toe in the water now, pilot and learn about the benefits of wearable technology, and how it can be harnessed within their organisation, whilst considering what data should, and should not be monitored and stored.  Or they can wait, at the risk of finding themselves trying to play catchup in the years ahead to those competitors who are laying the foundations today. 

About the author

Mark Bernstein is the CEO of Wearable Technologies Limited. Originally qualified as a Chartered Accountant with EY and with four IPOs under his belt, Mark has 20 years’ experience building technology companies around the world in internet, software, hardware and IP licensing and has received strategic partner investment from companies such as IBM, Motorola, BT, Sky and Dixons. He founded Wearable Technologies Limited in 2014 with the objective of its applying IoT to improve industrial worker safety as part of Industry 4.0.