The following article recently appeared in the Facility Safety Management magazine.
It’s difficult to keep track of all the different ways that technology affects our lives, from waking us up in the morning to tracking health data, keeping us entertained, and helping us focus on our most important responsibilities. With our reliance on smartphones, laptops, and tablets, technological progress has become a given in our normal day-to-day. People are becoming comfortable with technology as a major part of life, and employers are beginning to realize the extraordinary benefits that staying on the cutting edge brings to their productivity and bottom line.
From wearable devices like health monitors and hazard alert systems to artificial intelligence-fueled predictive safety, technology can serve as a cornerstone of workplace safety programs across industries. Managers in today’s economy are better equipped than ever to understand the specific needs of their workers and how the work environment can contribute to soft-tissue musculoskeletal injuries, chronic pain, and fatigue, all of which introduce significant costs in both human capital and financial resources. So while AI and advanced wearable equipment that improves human performance may feel like a radical step into science fiction, the truth is these technologies hold amazing potential to keep workers safe and boost productivity while alleviating the costs that come from injuries, chronic pain, and fatigue.
Hitting the Pain Points
Across the nation, employers are spending some $635 billion each year on costs from chronic pain alone. In the United States, some 100 million workers are affected by chronic pain, making it the top cause of long-term disability in the nation. This is a clear burden on workers across industries, linked to depression in 77 percent of sufferers and contributing to a total of 36 million lost work days. It has proven detrimental to morale, causing losses in productivity and considerable indirect costs that often aren’t factored into financial roadmaps.
Too often, workers who suffer common injuries such as musculoskeletal disorders enter the workers’ compensation pipeline after the incident, resulting in claims costs and treatment expenses for the employer and lost productivity that further disrupts the bottom line. Some 63 percent of workers who experience chronic pain end up seeing a doctor, a pattern which has contributed to the deadly rise of opioid painkillers. According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioid use causes tens of thousands of deaths from overdose each year, including around 70,000 in 2017 alone. Once prescription painkillers are involved, workers face an uphill battle returning to their jobs at maximum effectiveness—likewise, workers who avoid treatment altogether are likely to face other symptoms, including chronic fatigue, another major drain on financial and human resources for employers.
Complicating the matter further is the changing nature of the workforce. The American working population is steadily growing older—with the global retirement deficit growing toward $400 trillion by 2050 and cultural norms shifting in favor of working later into life, the workforce now spans across multiple generations. Workers aged 55 to 65 represent a larger share of the American workforce than ever, their presence growing by more than 50 percent in the last five years. With that aging trend comes a shift in how claims and treatment for injuries and other afflictions with be handled. Since some 36 percent of Social Security disability claims now originate with a musculoskeletal injury, it’s easy to see how a generationally diverse workforce implies increased risk to workers and their employers.
Artificial Intelligence for Predictive Safety and Risk Management
Artificial intelligence is transforming how companies do business in the 21st century. A scalable, adaptable solution that can be applied across an array of tools to improve worker safety, artificial intelligence could double economic growth in the United States by 2035, paired with an expected $4.7 trillion boost across the American marketplace.
While the full potential of AI is still being explored, employers have already found several applications aimed at reducing injuries and optimizing the workers’ compensation system. Large tech companies have developed services that identify hazards in the workplace using cameras and software augmented by AI capabilities. In this case, the service might alert managers to dangerously placed equipment, spills, electrical hazards, and faulty tools, all of which are leading drivers of soft-tissue injury at work. Another fruitful area for AI integration has been data collection and analysis. Companies have developed predictive tools that synthesize a wealth of unstructured data (that is, data that can’t be easily sorted into neat spreadsheet columns), utilizing the results to understand fatigue risks and make adjustments to the work environment to keep employees safe.
Wearable Tech Augments Workers’ Abilities
Today, wearable devices are among the most accessible AI-equipped technologies aimed at promoting worker safety. Wearables have proven especially useful for companies with warehouses or large manufacturing facilities, where managers may not be able to observe the entire job site unaided. Devices such as wrist monitors provide real time data collection and instant reports for managers, alerting the responsible parties to hazards or incidents that require intervention. Many companies have gone even further than wrist devices, developing work suits equipped with sensors that measure the employee’s exertion levels, fatigue signs, and overall behavior patterns while working on a specific task. With the data provided by wearable devices, companies can implement changes in the work environment, from individual tools and workstations to task design.
Workplace injuries aren’t limited to factories and construction sites. A significant portion of musculoskeletal disorders have far more innocuous origins, often afflicting workers whose jobs require long periods in front of a computer screen. Sitting places a strain on the human body, diminishing blood flow and causing back pain, muscle aches, and other symptoms that often lead to workers’ comp claims and lost productivity. Desktop ergonomics has emerged as a useful tactic against these kinds of injuries, with companies deploying robust software solutions that target the ergonomic risk factors for office employees. Posture, eye-to-monitor placement, and foot positioning all contribute to desktop health, so organizations have turned to software that allows workers to self-assess their comfort and wellness and learn about the safety hazards of being seated. These programs also remind workers to stand, stretch, and move around at regular intervals while collecting data on worker health to inform stronger ergonomic standards.
According to 2017 data from Liberty Mutual, overexertion accounted for almost a quarter of all workplace injuries, carrying a cost of nearly $14 billion to employers in one year alone. Overexertion typically occurs when a worker attempts to push, pull, or lift something that is either too heavy or in a difficult position (i.e., above the head).
Recently, advances in exoskeleton tech have provided options for employees in jobs that require a high degree of physical exertion, typically in construction, manufacturing, and warehouse settings. New equipment augments the worker’s own physical strength, making it easier to move, load, and carry heavy objects without the risk of a strain or sprain. And the benefits aren’t limited to the short term—exoskeletons prevent gradual wear and tear on joints and tissue so that workers remain healthy throughout their careers.
Making Room for Tech
If the safety benefits for workers aren’t incentive enough for employers to adopt new technologies, then the financial rewards should seal the deal. Technology can maximize the effects of other safety and wellness tactics, including on-site therapies, departmental stretching routines, ergonomic assessments, and biomechanics training, combining to form a holistic system of health services that can cut workplace injuries by as much as 50 percent. Change starts at the top, and investment in proactive safety programs that focus on the worker’s body, behavior, and environment inspires change among workers, fostering a culture of wellness, engagement, and education that empowers workers to take charge of their health and safety, even while on the job.