Getting Wearable Tech on the Railway Health and Wellbeing Roadmap
The rail industry has agreed a Railway Health and Wellbeing Roadmap to improve health and wellbeing capability. The roadmap is overseen by the Health and Wellbeing Policy Group, made up of leaders from within industry, and sub groups that cover numerous activity areas and bring together many experts. Technological developments to support health improvements is on our industry roadmap, and wearable technology is one of them.
So, can we make rail healthier and safer by creating a big data system driven by wearables? Can we use the latest technologies to ethically capture and analyse information on the lifestyle activities of railway employees? And how would this positively impact our understanding and our ability to manage the key factors that influence health and wellbeing?
From my experience of working with those collaborating on the Railway Health and Wellbeing Roadmap, wearable technologies that support improved employee health and wellbeing would be warmly embraced. We know that proactive management of workforce health and wellbeing is becoming an important part of business performance for rail companies. Increased obesity, an ageing workforce, employees working until later in life, and work related ill health all have an impact on business risk and performance. Currently the associated cost of ‘absenteeism’ caused by impaired health in the railway in Great Britain is in the region of £320m per year. If coupled with ‘presenteeism’ it could be as high as £790m per year. Better health for the rail workforce will create better performing and safer organisations.
So how can technology help? In an idealised world, technology would allow us to capture data on an individual’s sleeping patterns, heart rates, blood sugar levels and body mass index. It could also at the same time capture data on the environment: sun exposure, dusts, particulates, noise and chemical exposures. Together, this data would accurately reflect reality and add new dimensions to our understanding of issues such as stress, fatigue, obesity, and occupational health risks. However, this is challenging and so an initiative on wearables needs all the support it can get.
The rail industry already makes use of technologies which could be evolved to better support health and wellbeing. Sentinel smart cards that track the qualifications of rail employees could be used along with wearable tech to track health conditions, current health states and permitted work activities. SMIS (our Safety Management Intelligence System) provides a vast library of safety related information, and planned improvements to it include initiatives to influence behavioural change using alerts, escalations, and work flow systems.
To successfully deploy and extract real value from wearable tech, we need input from health experts, human factor specialists, data scientists, hardware developers and academics. We need to bring together suppliers, operators, trade unions and regulators in order to reduce time and cost waste. We also need to partner with industries that face similar health challenges to create synergies and share costs.
Developing systems and technology which involve personal data requires us to be mindful of important new ethical considerations. For instance, when a disruptive technology comes into being, there is often a wild range of ideas, short-lived developments and investments that fall in and out of use until the technology begins to settle. During this time, it is necessary to be extra vigilant on how early introduction of wearables affects the lives and behaviours of the staff using them. Few studies take the time to evidence any sought-after improvements in health through wearables and those that do only show small improvements that can be gained. Knowledge held within trade unions and universities should be used to mitigate risk to employees and investigate the ethical implications of these activities. This could also help avoid employee relations issues in the future.
Finally, we must learn from the failures of past initiatives and make use of wearables only as part of a well-formed programme of activity. Research by Johns Hopkins recognises that the benefits of any company health intervention (wearable or not) are difficult to measure and track. The research identifies that there is a large divide between what is termed a “comprehensive” health promotion programme and one that is built around “random acts of wellness”. It suggests that “programs that merely administer health information, health risk assessment surveys and/or offer a health improvement web site are generally ineffective ‘off-the-shelf’ programs offered by a vendor also fail if they lack leadership support and are not integrated into the culture of an organization”. Programme success is said to depend on the goals of the programme, its design and most importantly, and not surprisingly, how the programme is implemented. This is why any programme introducing wearables needs to link their deployment to key business objectives, have genuine executive management support and multi-year strategic planning. We know that such a programme would also benefit from employee input when developing goals and objectives, the variety of program offerings, effective targeting of high-risk individuals, and effective communications.
To conclude, I will say that the barriers to getting wearable technologies to work for us in an evidenced way are high, but not insurmountable. The rail industry has a history of making programmes like this work when it agrees on their importance and works together. The more pressing issue is whether industry will prioritise collaboration and funding to remove barriers or drift into them. It is simple to use wearables, but it is hard to make a positive health change that sticks.