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Statistics show how prevalent injuries are among industrial and frontline workers—and how wearables can ease the burden on both workers and employees.

Frontline and industrial workers comprise 80% of the global workforce. They’re delivery drivers, healthcare providers, housekeepers, manufacturing line workers, warehouse packers, grocery stockers, restaurant servers and more.

While these 2.7 billion workers span multiple industries, one common concern they all share is safety. Industrial and frontline employees perform tasks that are often labor-intensive and can, in and of themselves, be hazardous. In fact, nearly 1 million workplace injuries occur each day in the world.

This high number of injuries suggests that safety among this critical workforce is in crisis. Many companies only invest in minimal safety personnel, equipment or training, mostly driven by compliance with government and other regulatory agencies. It doesn’t help that many companies have long considered worker injuries or fatalities as part of the cost of doing business.

Worse, we’re now seeing a growing push for productivity across workforce operations. Most operations departments at large organizations have goals that usually include an annual increase in productivity. This is coupled with hiring shortages across industries, which means that workers are often working harder and faster with more overtime, more shifts and more output. The coupling of increased productivity requirements and more working hours creates conditions that make it harder to ensure worker safety.

For example, package delivery drivers have complained about pressure to meet strict production quotas, which could increase their risk of injury on the job. These workers used to deliver 10 to 15 packages an hour, but now the expectation is 25 per hour. This puts a lot of pressure on the driver to perform their work fast. A report from the Strategic Organizing Center showed nearly one in five drivers who make deliveries for Amazon suffered injuries in 2021, a 40% increase from the company’s injury rate in 2020.

And, a Washington Post investigation found that in 2020, for every 200,000 hours worked at an Amazon warehouse in the U.S., there were 5.9 serious incidents—nearly double the injury rate of non-Amazon warehouses. Amazon temporarily suspended its quotas during the early days of the pandemic, which was thought to have improved workplace safety, but has since reinstated performance metrics for how quickly warehouse workers must stow, pick and pack orders.

Reducing injuries among industrial frontline workers has traditionally been difficult. The technology used to keep them safe hadn’t significantly changed in decades: eye protection became prominent in the 1910s, the hard hat in the 1930s and the safety vest in the 1960s. But now, a new generation of safety technology is becoming more readily available and affordable, which should help many of the issues facing this workforce.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are increasingly adopting new technologies to enhance worker safety and productivity. Some Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, such as wearables, are well-suited for frontline industrial workers because of their ability to improve the way workers move on the job, thereby reducing their risk of strains and sprains from laborious, repetitive-motion tasks. The technology also offers employers an opportunity to reduce injuries and lower workers’ comp claims costs.

A January 2022 special report by Microsoft reflects how technology is bringing about a new opportunity for digital tools to help ease the burden on frontline workers. The report’s findings—based on data from a survey of 9,600 front line employees in eight industries across five continents—revealed technology ranks third on the list of factors that workers say could help reduce workplace stress. The report states: “Despite their essential role in every industry, these workers have traditionally been underserved by technology. Just as the pandemic was a catalyst for spurring rapid digital transformation for information workers, the data suggests we’re at a similar inflection point on the front line.”

Here are three ways that safety technology can improve workplace safety.

  1. Injury Frequency

A variety of safety hazards threaten the industrial workforce, including organizational and environmental risks. However, one of the most pervasive is ergonomic hazards because workstations or workspaces are not typically designed with individual workers in mind. Examples of poor ergonomics include repetitive movements, awkward postures and forceful exertions performed during daily tasks.

When workers repeatedly bend, twist and reach improperly, it stresses their musculoskeletal systems. Over time, this can lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The U.S. private sector experienced nearly 250,000 MSD injuries involving days away from work in 2020. Furthermore, MSDs accounted for 96.8% of all overexertion and bodily-reaction-related injuries and 63.2% of all sprains, strains & tears in 2020.

Front line workers are especially at risk for injury as the jobs they perform, from warehouse pickers to nurses to delivery drivers, are often labor-intensive and involve tasks that require repetitive and sustained awkward postures. In 2018, the manufacturing, construction, healthcare & social assistance, and transportation & warehousing industries accounted for 67% of all MSD cases in the private sector.

As the emphasis on productivity for front line workers has increased, not enough emphasis has been put on training them to move their bodies correctly to avoid injury at work. Typical ergonomic solutions, such as one-time trainings, might encourage employees to temporarily alter the way they move, but they don’t change long-term behavior or create new habits.

Wearables, however, serve as an always-on, continuous coaching system. Sensors on these unobtrusive devices can detect risky movements and alert users through haptic feedback, such as a light vibration each time one is performed.

These real-time alerts help workers recognize poor posturing or positioning and encourage them to create new habits. This can help drive sustained behavior change to reduce the number of high-risk postures that can lead to musculoskeletal injury. Data from wearables can generate reports and analyses to show management areas to focus their attention on that could lead to injury, helping to reduce risk further.

In a 2021 report, the actuarial consulting firm Perr&Knight found a direct correlation between the rate of high-risk movements and the frequency of strain and sprain injuries. The report (commissioned by my company, Kinetic Insurance) showed worker strain and sprain injuries declined by 49.5% in the manufacturing industry and 58.8% in the warehouse industry as a result of using a wearable device designed to reduce risky postures.

  1. Lost Work Days

The indirect costs of workplace injuries include a serious impact on worker productivity and retention as well as employee morale, workplace culture and employee quality of life. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that work-related MSDs are among the most frequently reported causes of lost or restricted work time. In 2018, 30% of all days away from work cases were MSD-related. Similarly, MSDs accounted for 32% of all injuries resulting in 31 or more days away from work in 2020.

The indirect costs related to MSDs can be up to five times the direct costs, according to OSHA. Injured employees may not be able to work scheduled shifts for weeks, months or even years. In 2020, the median number of days away from work for MSDs was 14 compared to 12 for all work-related injuries. For some industrial workers, the stakes are much higher: In 2018, the median number of days away from work for MSDs was 26 for workers in the transportation and warehousing industry.

This is another area where wearables can shine. Wearables help to reduce the frequency of sprain and strain injuries, which typically require long recovery times. This means that they can also help reduce the number of lost or modified work days.

Additionally, by encouraging proper body mechanics, wearables can help employees experience less soreness and fatigue. This allows them to maintain their productivity for longer, miss less work, and experience greater emotional and mental well-being. The result is a safer, more productive workforce.

The aforementioned Perr&Knight report also showed a reduction in the rate of absences when using a wearable device. Missed workdays were reduced by 72%, based on data from participating businesses showing the number of days employees were either absent from work or limited to light duty.

  1. Workers’ Comp Claims

The economic costs of these common, yet preventable, MSD injuries are significant beyond lowering productivity. The Institute in Medicine estimates the economic burden of work-related MSDs—as measured by compensation costs, lost wages and lost productivity—is between $45 and $54 billion annually.

MSDs are the largest category of workplace injuries and are responsible for 30% of all workers’ compensation costs. For MSD-related workers’ compensation costs alone, a recent annual cost estimate for U.S. companies is $32.9 billion.

Fortunately, wearables can reduce overall workers’ comp claims costs by up to 50% in environments where high strain and sprain injury rates are present, as shown in the Perr&Knight report. The reduction of high-risk movements among a workforce serves as a leading indicator that injuries will go down because bad ergonomics often lead to injury. As high-risk postures are reduced, injury rates start to decrease, leading to fewer workers’ compensation claims and fewer expenses.

Recently, some workers’ compensation providers have started offering wearables to policyholders at no extra cost. These prevention-focused programs provide policyholders with devices designed to prevent workplace injuries and lower workers’ comp claims and costs while also helping to improve worker productivity.

Conclusion

Amid these many current industrial workplace challenges, leveraging wearables can help companies become more resilient and even gain, or maintain, a competitive edge. Innovative safety technology, such as wearables, not only enhances workplace safety; it helps to retain an existing workforce as well as attract new employees.