Wearable Tech and Smartphones Could Save Lives of Lone Workers
Published on: 25th Aug 2014
Jeannine Chavez was saddened when she learned that a former co worker had died after falling at an industrial wastewater treatment plant in Maryland in January. It wasn't until he failed to return home from his weekend shift when he was discovered, a day later, at the base of a ladder where he was working alone on a Sunday.
Chavez, a facilities tech for 14 years, and several other Intel employees resolved to form a task force to make sure similar accidents don't happen at Intel, which has over 100,000 employees and several thousand contractors working at hundreds of office buildings, manufacturing facilities, warehouses and support buildings around the world. Chavez believed that these sorts of incidents could be avoided using off-the-shelf smartphone and wearable technology.
What they hope to create is a new "digital buddy system" to help locate and keep track of lone workers. Preventing workplace injuries has always been a high priority for Intel, but a new system would take aim at preventing the type of accident that claimed Chavez's friend.
Lone workers, or people who work in isolated or remote locations often by themselves, are fairly common in the workplace today. Often with shifts at night or on the weekends, these workers are frequently required to perform work with no one else present.
While lone worker monitoring programs currently exist ("Help! I've fallen and cannot get up" - Life Alert was founded in 1987), they are often pricey, require complex and proprietary systems, and frequently do not meet the needs of specific corporate, industrial and municipality environments.
First Generation Lone Worker Apps Don't Cut It
When Chavez and her team started investigating potential solutions to protect lone workers, they found a wide range of proprietary systems and smartphone applications. An informal count within the Apple App Store shows 24 apps targeted toward the "lone worker." Within Google Play, there are approximately 40 relevant lone worker apps.
Most smartphone applications, according to the team, have several common features including an alerting function via SMS or email, panic buttons (or buttons that allow the user to send an "OK" signal), and GPS integration. Some even use smartphone accelerometer features to detect rapid movements (e.g., a crash or fall).
"We assumed there was an app to meet our needs," said John Gabaldon, a corporate services employee involved in the effort at Intel's New Mexico facility. "Some of the apps require the wearer to constantly acknowledge that they are OK. If the wearer does not acknowledge, then an escalation email or text is sent out with location and help needed. Others incorporated the accelerometer of the phone to send out a help needed if it detected an impact. Others had a panic button that could be used in emergencies."
"Many of the apps had good qualities, but the goal was making something that didn't require user input and didn't send out nuisance [or] false alarms," said Gabaldon.
According to Chavez and Gabaldon, these current systems are not perfect and there are scenarios specific to industrial environments that require a smarter solution.
"There are locations that are very isolated - no Wi-Fi, cellular or GPS connections," said Chavez. "Maintenance and calibrations often occur in basements or isolated corners."
Apart from connectivity, additional biometric data can make a difference.
Incorporating existing and new technologies into the standard lone worker system is required for success, according to the team. Integrating existing door scan data signifying location or using Bluetooth beacons to track users where cellular or Wi-Fi connections are not available are just a couple solutions the team is evaluating. But more critically is the incorporation of biometrics via smart health devices like earbuds or watches that can then detect abnormal changes to heart rate in conjunction to rapid accelerometer changes, which could indicate a dramatic fall or accident.
Biometric information could open up new privacy concerns. "I would only use a wearable that I could choose who and when I would like to share my information," says Chavez. "At work I would have no issue sharing my biometrics and would like those on my team to know my whereabouts when my biometrics give reason for concern."
There is also the issue of accuracy of biometric readers and whether they are reliable enough to detect critical changes to pulse rates or other measurements. Also, would a manufacturer of a wearable biometric device be held liable should a reading be missed or misinterpreted?
Basis, a maker of biometric smart watches and a company recently acquired by Intel, has purposefully stayed away from medical and safety monitoring.
"We have intentionally not optimized a product for medical, injury or safety use cases," said Jef Holove, former CEO of Basis and now general manager in Intel's New Devices Group. "We are a mainstream consumer product."
Holove also believes along with potential liability issues, there are regulatory concerns as well. Before the legality, regulatory or accuracy issues are tackled, the system needs to be prototyped.
"The hope was to use one of the new smart wearables to detect pulse or heart rate and send that data to a smart phone," said Gabaldon. "There are watches that collect this data, but also earbuds or forehead devices. The goal was to show a proof of concept that this data could be pulled into an app."
This remains one of the larger challenges for the team of facility workers. They agree that the infrastructure and servers are there, as are the smart wearable devices for gathering biometric data. All that is left is tying the right smart health device with the appropriate software to create that always watching digital buddy for lone workers.