BioErgo Surveillance: New Approaches for Total Worker Health
This blog post is adapted from a presentation given by Anthony Harris, MD, MBA, MPH, and Ryan Sims, MS, ASP, CWP, at AIHce EXP 2020, and from conversations with Dr. Harris and Sims that took place on August 29, 2020, and September 14, 2020, respectively. It is part of an ongoing series on Total Worker Health.
Technological advancements in the past two decades have greatly expanded the abilities, reach, and accessibility of biometric and bioergonomic sensors that give healthcare professionals, industrial hygienists, and other interested specialists a better understanding of how the body responds in certain conditions. Meanwhile, the emergent field of Big Data facilitates the analysis of data collected by sensors on an enormous scale, and the Internet of Things allows sensors to connect to the internet and communicate with each other.
The IH profession has only recently begun to mobilize these resources to protect and promote worker health. When correctly applied, these new technologies can dramatically improve an IH’s understanding of the physical health risks workers are exposed to on the job.
How Sensors Can Help IH: An Example
Dr. Anthony Harris, a physician specializing in occupational medicine, sought to improve outcomes in the treatment of work-related back pain. He wanted to understand better the ergonomic burden of a work task, the amount of muscle exertion required to perform it, and exactly where and when a task increased risk to a worker’s health.
Dr. Harris turned to surface electromyography (EMG), a medical technique that uses sensors placed against the skin to record the electrical activity produced during movement. Surface EMG has existed in wearable formats since the 1970s. In 2015, Dr. Harris partnered with a California-based tech company to create a bio-ergonomic suit made of lightweight material similar to athletic wear that could be embedded with strategically placed sensors and comfortably worn under work clothes.
A worker dons the suit and performs routine work tasks while an IH and other observers use a handheld device to monitor for “hot spots,” points of high musculoskeletal stress. As a worker goes through required actions, sensors in the suit—connected via Bluetooth technology—measure his or her bioergonomic data. An algorithm invented by Dr. Harris and a graduate student interprets the data collected by the sensors. In this way, the bioergonomic suit helps the IH collect data about the musculoskeletal stress experienced by workers as they do their jobs and pinpoints what exactly about the task creates musculoskeletal injury risk. If this is understood, the IH can encourage decision-makers to take appropriate action to address the risk.
The suit “makes it possible to do analysis where it traditionally would be difficult,” said Dr. Harris—that is, it allows IHs to collect data in the field, under the circumstances workers face during their typical workdays, as opposed to simulated laboratory conditions or other controlled environments—and then plan better interventions that reflect actual workplace conditions.
It also allows an IH to put the health, safety, and well-being of a population of workers under continuous observation, providing IHs with the data and information they need to make health and safety interventions before musculoskeletal injuries occur. Before adopting this suit and similar sensor technologies, IHs and allied professionals would identify musculoskeletal risks at their organizations by analyzing worker injury rates. This required many injuries to occur before IHs could sound the alarm, and the organization could take preventative action. Biometric and bioergonomic sensors revolutionize IH with real-time data collection on workplace risk factors, helping IHs recognize the moments of greatest risk during the worker’s typical day.
The story of Dr. Harris and the bioergonomic suit is just one example of how recent technological innovations can be applied to help IHs find more accurate solutions. Consequently, keeping abreast with the latest technological offerings available to the industry may do much to supplement Total Worker Health at any organization.
Using Wearable Sensor Technology in the Workplace
The bio-ergo suit conceived of by Dr. Harris and deployed by WorkCare, where Harris is chief innovation officer and an associate medical director, is designed to be easy to use and scalable to the IH’s needs in the workplace. It is designed to extend the IH’s reach, allowing him or her to quickly collect more precise data from a larger sample of employees than would otherwise be feasible. The technology requires a qualified IH to accurately interpret the data it collects and use the results to design successful occupational health and safety interventions. Meanwhile, data collection itself is simple enough that a layperson may supervise it, and workers need little training to wear the suit.
Other technological offerings on the market have their own strengths, and it requires research to determine which device will be most helpful to an IH in any given circumstance.
However, before an IH can begin to adopt any new technology to collect biometric or bioergonomic data from employees at their organization, all parties from the executive level down to the frontline need to understand the technology, what data will be collected, and how the data will be used. The ethical challenges of using sensors in IH will be discussed more thoroughly in a later blog post in this series.
If introduced properly, IHs may find sensor technology is eagerly embraced in their organization. Dr. Harris stated that in his experience, frontline workers were excited to help test his bio-ergo sensors. Ryan Sims, health and safety engineer at LyondellBasell, an early adopter of the wearable technology, characterized it as being warmly received by both workers and leadership.
Sims and a colleague initially flew to California to test the suits themselves, replicating in a CrossFit gym the kind of movements performed by workers on site. Impressed, Sims and his colleague piloted the suit at a handful of work sites before the company took it full-scale. Sims reported that most employees seemed excited to use the technology and highlighted the value of the data collected by the suit in helping company leadership more efficiently address musculoskeletal risks at their work sites.
Using sensor technology in the workplace can help IHs demonstrate to organizational leadership the benefit of investing in health and safety interventions. It allows IHs to use objective data when making their case to those not trained in industrial hygiene. IHs who truly believe that a specific device or program will help prevent work-related injuries and illnesses are encouraged to advise senior executives that an investment in sensor technology pays off by reducing costly injuries and related liability concerns. Above all, sensor technology is useful because it assists in identifying the health issues for which each worker is at risk, helping the IH to prevent injury before it occurs—a critical objective of Total Worker Health.