On Your Back: Wearable Tools for Contractors

SHUTTERSTOCK / MACROVECTOR / TELE52 / WAN WEI
SHUTTERSTOCK / MACROVECTOR / TELE52 / WAN WEI

Electrical workers face outsized safety risks. While some 6% of Americans work on construction sites, 20% of work-related fatalities happen there, according to the 2018 Construction Chart Book from the Center for Constructing Research and Training. Electrical contractors employ safety directors, hold safety meetings and require frequent training. But could technology further boost safety for electrical workers? Some research projects, and live deployments, have found the answer is yes, and technology companies are developing a variety of solutions using sensors and wearable devices that weren’t available just a few years ago.

For contractors, safety has evolved with emerging technology, better protective garments and a focus on expanded safety and task-based training, said Wesley Wheeler, NECA’s director of safety. But wearables may bring a new level of benefit, he said. Products such as consumer-type fitness trackers consumers are well-suited for busy construction sites where sensors and apps offer a greater view into what’s happening and seeing how accidents could be prevented.

According to Dodge Data & Analytics’ 2020 research, wearable devices are in use at 11% of job sites, but that number is forecast to grow to 63% in the next three years.

Electricians already carry app-loaded mobile phones and personal voltage detectors, so introducing new products to the job site is nothing new to them. Startups, big tech firms and electrical switchgear and test instrument manufacturers are all investigating wireless and remote technologies to improve work site safety.

Wearables for the four hazards

TRIAX TECHNOLOGIES
Triax Spot-r trackers are being worn to locate on-site workers in case
of danger. With a tablet, safety managers can view real-time data.

Like all construction workers, electricians are impacted by OSHA’s Focus Four Hazards, said Scott Earnest, deputy director, NIOSH Office of Construction Safety and Health. NIOSH—the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health—operates as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These four hazards cause nearly 60% of all construction fatalities each year: falls (from elevation or on the same level); struck-by incidents (by vehicles or flying objects); caught-in and between (such as trench collapses or rollovers); and electrocutions. While falls represent nearly 40% of all incidents, the other three hazards each represent approximately 5–10% of the total annual construction fatalities, according to an OSHA 2019 report. 

NIOSH has conducted multiple projects to test some wearable technology to see how it could benefit worker safety. By combining sensors with location or video information, specific work tasks can be evaluated for any exposure to hazards. By tracking conditions and activities, sensor technologies empower workers to avoid or better recover from accidents, Earnest said. These technologies can help workers, employers and supervisors reduce harmful workplace exposures and become active partners in preventing occupational illnesses and injuries. 

The solutions include location sensors to ensure workers don’t leave authorized zones or can be located during an emergency for mustering. Also, cameras and drones can watch out for any abnormal conditions, Wheeler said, giving contractors a better understanding of what is happening on-site so they can prevent accidents.

“Wearable technology devices, devices with RF capabilities and the internet of things [IoT] with wireless communications, allow for better tracking of workers, tools and monitoring of job-site progress,” Wheeler said.

Proximity sensors monitor the location and movement of people for safety, security and process analysis. For instance, an IoT system can help prevent a potential collision by warning workers on the ground or those operating equipment that moving hazards, such as heavy construction equipment, are near, thereby preventing collisions. In this case, a sensor is attached to heavy, moving equipment (such as cranes, forklifts and vehicles), and workers are wearing badges. A system can alert the vehicle or equipment operator if a worker is around the corner, or it can alert the worker, or both. The NIOSH National Construction Center is researching such wearable-warning systems.

Connecticut-based Triax Technologies makes an IoT system known as Spot-r in which workers wear a matchbox size transmitter known as a clip, that sends a 900 MHz signal to receivers installed around a site. The Spot-r clip includes multiple sensors to help the system accomplish several tasks. First of all, it identifies where workers or equipment are located within a work site. That helps managers better deploy workers and ensure they don’t enter a hazardous area.

Fall detection

The Spot-r also detect falls with a built-in sensor that knows if an individual suddenly drops, said Ian Ouellette, Triax Technologies’ product vice president. Managers could receive a real-time alert displayed on a site map that indicates where that individual is. The clip also has a push button so workers can send alerts, such as help needed, as well as receive responses wirelessly.

Exoskeletons

Exoskeletons are still rare in the construction space. However, these wearable mechanical structures may prevent injuries. In fact, the suits can augment the strength of the individual wearing it, using an actuator. This helps take strain off joints and prevents repetitive-stress injuries.

A passive version without an actuator instead leverages materials that can capture, harvest and store energy created by the wearer’s movements. This makes it possible to support a vertical lift force, for instance, to take some pressure off arm and shoulder muscles.

But the purpose for exoskeletons would be reducing repetitive stress rather than enabling super-human strength. According to NIOSH’s research, the exoskeleton could prevent back injuries for those who must repeatedly lift tools or materials or for those that take on stress-inducing postures for long periods of time.

“Exoskeleton technology is well-suited to assist construction workers with heavy lifting, but it also could be beneficial for workers that are doing overhead work or pulling cables and wires,” Earnest said, adding that both tasks are fairly common in the electrical trades. He pointed to Boeing’s use of exoskeletons to assist electricians doing overhead work.

This technology allows an aging workforce to continue doing physically demanding work that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. Additionally, studies have found that fatigue can be an indicator for an increased risk of injury. However, contractors should not expect to see exoskeletons in common use very soon. Companies are still working on the best way to power the technology, for instance, if used on a worker.

The majority of use cases are expected to be in medical and rehabilitation arenas, according to a 2015 market research from WinterGreen Research Inc., but will gain in the construction sector each year. At the same time, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been studying the use of exoskeletons to take the pressure off soldiers carrying equipment and gear.

Amp measurement and Bluetooth

DIVISION OF SAFETY RESEARCH (DSR), NIOSH
A NIOSH researcher wearing three exoskeletons and reflective markers uses a motion-capture system to evaluate the technology and its ability to track biomechanical data during a dynamic construction task (such as climbing masts).

Any system, product or technology that can protect a worker and employer from incidents has merit in the workplace, Wheeler said. Fluke Corp. is taking a number of approaches to put more tools in the hands —and pockets—of electrical workers to prevent injuries.

The company’s pocket T6-1000 FieldSense stick meter captures a voltage reading without touching a wire, making voltage measurement safer. The meter was released about two years ago, said Sean Silvey, Fluke product specialist. It sold in higher volume than the company had anticipated.

The company also makes a line of Bluetooth-enabled Fluke Connect FC devices, such as the 376-FC clamp meter, which link to a user’s smart phone or device and monitor the work being done.

“It allows you to store and name the data, and document it,” Silvey said, as well as to “share live measurements with colleagues” or employers.

As an industry, Silvey said, “We’re no longer waiting for something to fail, we are trying to be proactive about maintenance,” and electricians can use the FC devices to capture, record data about the function of equipment they are working with, and share that data in real time with their customers, managers or colleagues.

Conditions monitoring

In extreme environments, safety risks increase—including overheating and extreme cold. Here too wearables may offer solutions. Physiological status monitors can reliably collect worker data in the outdoor environment and warn about the potential for heat stress. Some environmental sensors have been developed to monitor air quality, including carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, gas leaks, temperature, humidity and noise, Earnest said. At the same time, heart rate monitors are being tested to track the physical demands on a worker, providing the option to sound an alert if the measured heart rate indicates unhealthy strain.

Preceding sensors, however, are heated jackets from companies such as DeWalt, Milwaukee and Ravean, which use rechargeable batteries to provide the wearer a selected amount of heat.

Adoption prevention

As with any new technology, plenty of obstacles could slow adoption: the primary one being privacy. Workers may feel productivity is being tracked as much as safety. In some cases, systems are being designed to track a worker badge associated with an assigned number, rather than a specific worker.

But the technology is not new for workers. Job tracking and recording employees on a project has long been in place, especially for large jobs where project foremen or managers must account for hundreds or thousands of workers, Wheeler said. On government projects, background checks and job-site access limitations are standard on many campuses, while name badges with RFID capabilities to log in and out are being used all over the country.

There’s also a question of cost. Most solutions today require installation of an IoT network of receivers to pick up data from the wearables. Whether using RFID, Bluetooth low energy or Wi-Fi, they may require gateways that aren’t already available on-site. Sensors themselves can cost anywhere from $35 to hundreds depending on the technology.

For users of the systems, it’s hard to put a return on your investment, so it’s more a question of how to place a value on safety.

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