Safeguarding our Workers in Risky Environments with Wearables

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'As companies invest in smarter tools, connected machinery, automation and data collection, the question will not be whether to also adopt wearable devices to better safeguard their workers, but which ones to adopt. The focus must be firstly on reliability, and secondly on adaptability'. - Rishi Parwani, Research Analyst, and Claire Shooter, Senior Research Analyst

This week, we look at some applications of wearables that are particularly important for the rail industry: wearables for lone working and safety in hazardous environments. 

The risks of lone working

From a safety standpoint, working alone poses numerous challenges. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines a lone worker as “those who work by themselves without close or direct supervision”. Lone workers constitute 22% of the UK working population, i.e. 8 million people, and are exposed to hazards such as sudden illnesses and inadequate first aid provision. 

With the UK’s extensive rail network constantly undergoing maintenance, improvement and modernization, many railway staff often work alone or operate in remote areas, next to fast speed lines, by risky embankments, or at dangerous heights. Furthermore, such activities often take place outside normal working hours, with the additional risks associated with late shifting. This does not only concern maintenance staff and engineers who are working trackside, ticket office workers, platform staff, train managers, drivers also face the risks of lone working.

New technologies for monitoring outdoor workers

Wearables can ensure that employers can always keep an eye on their staff’s location and movement while they are in the field and offer direct communications and emergency alarms in case of trouble.

GPS is a common feature in wearable devices and can be useful in the event of an accident or emergency. For example, if a worker appears to be inactive for a long time and their GPS coordinates remain the same, that can help an employer become aware of a potential problem. Devices are also equipped with simple communication buttons, enabling employees to check-in with more ease in comparison to a regular check-in phone call which could be disruptive to work. Discrete panic buttons can be an additional feature, instantly notifying when triggered staff based at an Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC). Some devices use accelerometers to identify slips and fall events, and other wearables monitor vitals to detect stressful situations and other anomalies.

In the energy industry, for example, lone working is common, with off-site workers having to travel from one site to the other for maintenance, repairs or inspections. Due to operating with electrics, equipment and sometimes at height, field service engineers are more at risk to workplace accidents such as electrocution and falls. National Grid’s ngLabs team launched a project in 2017 to investigate wearable technology for improving worker safety and speeding up the rate at which repairs are carried out. Interactive wristbands developed by Microsoft were chosen for the project, to capture heart rate and location data live. i-Systems made the switch from a manual administrating system to a more robust and flexible digital solution. According to the company’s director, the App-based StaySafe system, integrated into their flexible working pattern, was a strong improvement compared to their previous manual system, allowing time saving and improving on the legal duty of care to employees.

Civil engineering and road maintenance crews are also exposed to high-risk work environments. Companies in the sector have recently trialled new wearable technologies. The Lanes group decided to equip its drainage personnel with a Skyguard digital fob that detects if a person collapses and remains still for a specified time, indicating they could be in distress. The system has two-way communication, allowing Controllers in Skyguard's Incident Management Centre to listen to the fob wearer, or talk to them if needed. The system can also alert the Incident Management Centre automatically, and has a location precision with a few meters range, useful for emergency interventions. Amey trialed Fujitsu wearables over eight weeks on its Highways England’s North East Regional Technology Maintenance Contract. The devices used included a collar drowsiness detector, ear clips measuring changes in blood flow to detect initial signs of fatigue, as well as a ruggedized wrist-worn vital band monitoring vital signs and environmental factors to alert employees to signs of heat stress or exertion, and to identify changes in posture indicating trip or falls. Amey found that the tech is transferable to other situations across its business and could potentially provide a wealth of data about the wellbeing of staff, helping them improve general safety.

In the rail industry, the launch of the enhanced Sentinel card system has opened up new wearable technology options for Network Rail. Encompassed in this system are two lone working services: the Heartbeat service monitors users at chosen intervals (e.g. 60 minutes), whereas Push4Help is a button operated alarm system that when pressed, opens up communication to an operator who can monitor any ongoing situation – emergency services can be called if necessary. Sentinel currently has 176,424 users across the network, of which a large proportion will have experienced lone working conditions. All data is held in data centres adhering to ISO standards and subject to data protection legislation. Virgin Trains East Coast provided their frontline staff with MySOSpersonal alarms from Skyguard. The company was reportedly impressed with the device’s functionalities including GPS connectivity, two-way communications with Skyguard’s Incident Management Centre, roaming SIM card for low mobile coverage, “mandown alert” for sudden impact, fall and inactivity, low key alert for altercations involving passengers, and audio recordings for evidence.

Exposure to noise, vibration and air


Wearables may provide a well-needed solution, as accelerometers are able to pick up the vibration stimulations to the hands. Construction company Morgan Sindall has been trialing wearable technology supplied by Reactec for Crossrail construction workers in the Whitechapel and Liverpool Street tunnels. By equipping their workers with the devices and collecting and analyzing the data, Morgan Sindall was able to estimate vibration levels that workers are exposed to and establish what actions to take to reduce these numbers.

Sectors like Oil and Gas need to monitor the exposure of their staff to hazardous chemical substances. Gas monitoring wearables are currently being used by Marathon Petroleum. In 2011, the company provided their workers with wireless enabled gas monitoring devices on a trial basis that can identify several hazardous types of gas and feature a panic button, GPS setting and motion sensors. Following the success of the trial, the company deployed the solution at one of its refineries in Robinson, Illinois. 

Things to consider when choosing to deploy a wearable solution

There exist standards for the provision of lone worker device services. BS8484 and BS5979 define both the requirements for the devices and for ARCs. Systems that comply with these standards are eligible for a URN (Unique Reference Number) that provides them with fast and direct contact to the police without having to call 999, speeding up the emergency response time. The diagram below provides a high-level overview of how a lone worker would report an accident via a wearable device.

Different technology level options are available:

  • Low key technology solution: text message solutions that work with basic 2G phones and smartphones. They are still more advanced than manual systems, such as whiteboards which list the name of remote workers and use a tick system to check them in and out, or buddy systems which pair up lone workers up with colleagues. However, escalation is managed internally, and there are no unique reference numbers for quick connection to emergency services. These systems are usually not compliant with BS8484.
  • Intermediate technology solution: mobile phone and tablet-based apps. They are more sophisticated than the previous, but they may not feed through to an ARCs, or if so, communication and data processing time may be too long for emergency response. Furthermore, the manipulation of a smart phone may lack the discretion required by some situations or may prove to be impractical.
  • Advanced technology solution: Durable lone worker devices usually offer more robust location and communication. Mobile communications can be used when no GPS coverage is available, and solutions which use satellite technology are useful when a mobile signal is not available. Bluetooth beacons can help enhance devices (e.g. pair smartphones with one-step alarm systems). These devices can monitor a plurality of vitals and may have an Ingress Protection (IP) rating indicating their robustness.

And in the future …

Looking into the future, advanced streaming codecs (encoding and decoding algorithms) may soon enable body worn cameras with reliable and secure streaming video over ultra-low bandwidths to control centres, able to cope with network congestion and with camera movement, and at a low price (hardware and monthly SIM card costs). Machine learning applications will enable smarter anomaly detection systems that can exploit wearables data to their maximum, learn about events, forecast likely outcomes, or diagnose conditions before they get too far. Integration with Augmented Reality gear is another exciting prospect.

As companies invest in smarter tools, connected machinery, automation and data collection, the question will not be whether to also adopt wearable devices, but which ones to adopt. The focus must be firstly on reliability, and secondly on adaptability. Reliability is crucial because if such devices cannot be trusted to work consistently, there will be no improved safety from using them. Current barriers to reliability include limitations to bandwidth for streaming video, lack of signal to connect devices to GPS or the internet, or response capability from remote emergency staff. Adaptability is crucial to recognize that staff perform a variety of tasks in their roles with varying levels of risk attached to them. Constantly monitoring all vitals of all staff is unnecessarily laborious, and likely to feel invasive. Barriers to adaptability include poor decision making in the range of devices a company adopts and how well they cover the array of risks, inadequate understanding of what to use in which situation, and potentially issues with the interoperability of devices made by different companies. Collaboration with academics, risk analysts, human factor experts and technologists will prove decisive to make the next wave of safeguarding wearable tech successful.

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Rishi Parwani Claire Shooter blog image
Rishi Parwani and Claire Shooter