Imagine you’re a miner. Working long hours, deep underground, in physically demanding conditions. What you do requires concentration and focus – instead you’re tired and you have a couple of niggling injuries that are distracting you. It’s a combination that can lead to a serious accident.
But, a small alarm goes off. It’s a wearable sensor telling you that you need to take a break – and that you’re dehydrated. So, you stop working and, instead, take care of your health.
This is the world of smart workwear. It’s technology that could not only benefit people working in industries like mining, farming, construction and emergency services, all of whom work in harsh conditions – but also those of us working in less extreme environments.
The idea for smart workwear has been developed by two former University of Melbourne classmates, Dr Peng Hao and Dr Chien Chan. Both studied together at the university but stayed in touch after they graduated and continued to share ideas, despite living on opposite sides of the world.
So when the Victorian Government made a call-out for projects linking Jiangsu in China and Victoria in Australia they realised this was the opportunity they had been waiting for to work together and turn one of their big ideas into a reality.
Now, Dr Hao and Dr Chan are developing new technology to improve health and safety standards for workers across China and Australia. And it could change the future of work.
Long work hours in physical jobs or minor injuries that aren’t treated can all lead to an increase in body stress and is one of the common sources of the aches and pains you may experience at work. But it’s not just people who work in physically demanding jobs who experience body stress – taxi drivers and office workers can also experience symptoms that impact on their ability to do their jobs.
Recent statistics released by Safe Work Australia found that in September 2017 bodily stress made up almost 40 per cent of workplace injuries, like repetitive strain injury (RSI) or a ‘slipped disc’ caused by heavy lifting.
“The economic costs of work-related injury and illness is between 1.8 per cent and six per cent of a country’s GDP. For Australia, it is estimated to be A$61.8 billion annually” says Dr Chan, a Research Fellow in the Networked Society Institute at the University of Melbourne.
For the individual, the cost is even higher with a decrease in quality of life.
And this is where the technology comes in. Smart workwear is technology embedded into clothing that sits next to the skin. This can be a hard hat or work shirt, or sensors embedded into a soft compression sleeve that monitors a specific injury.
The technology keeps track of things like perspiration, heart rate, and movement to deliver holistic information on fatigue, dehydration, and bodily stress.
“We are integrating sensors into working gear including a wristband and motion sensors embedded in knee pads that wirelessly communicate and continuously evaluate workers’ physical daily work and productivity.
“The system can detect vital signs of deteriorating health, such as the level of fatigue, dehydration, and joint pain and then cross reference this with environmental monitoring.”
Here, sensors could prevent unnecessary time off and help increase workplace wellbeing. But for those workers facing temperature extremes, confined spaces or air pollution, workwear containing sensors that monitor their vital signs, as well as wider environmental conditions, could potentially, save their lives.
Although industries like mining are getting safer, the number of injuries and fatalities around the world is still unacceptable. According to the United Nation’s International Labor Organization, mining accounts for about one percent of the world’s workforce – or some 30 million people – but it’s responsible for about eight percent of fatal accidents at work.
Dr Chan and Dr Hao, now CEO of BigLink Technology in China, have a vision to add more features to their wearable technology to protect workers like miners in the future – things like monitoring oxygen levels and detecting harmful gases.
“We envision the final product will be tailor-made to industry needs, consisting of extra features such as data analytics methods, real-time monitoring and alert system, and wireless charging”, says Dr Chan. At the end of the day, workers can place their devices in a storage unit which wirelessly recharges the devices so they are ready the next day when people return to work.
This means firefighters will know when their body reaches a dangerous level of heat or dehydration, helping them to avoid long-term injury. It can mean farmers are alerted to harmful gas levels while spraying their crops, or construction workers keeping an eye on real-time data tracking how repetitive heavy-lifting actions are affecting their back and knees.
The wearer can be given prompts to drink more water or take a break, while an employer can also receive analytics on health and safety compliance, as well as any potentially dangerous tasks or areas.
The sensors can also help an injured worker return to work after treatment, helping them to establish their limits and ease back into tasks without any further stress to their body.
But, primarily, the smart workwear is about worker wellbeing.
“For employees, the benefit is very straightforward – to prevent work-related injury and keep them healthy so that they can go back to their family everyday safely and continue working,” says Dr Chan
“For industry and society, this could mean a significant increase in productivity of the industry and reduce the costs associated with work-related incidents due to deterioration in workers’ health conditions.”
Many of us already use wearable technology to monitor our daily fitness or sleep cycles, but it has the potential to do so much more.
New smart workwear technology could help save Australia billions in medical costs, make workplaces safer, but most importantly it can prevent debilitating injuries to people already working in harsh environments and it may even save lives.
This collaborative project between BigLink Technology and University of Melbourne is supported by a grant from the State Government Victoria via the Victoria-Jiangsu Program for Technology and Innovation R&D and funding from University of Melbourne’s Networked Society Institute.
Feature picture: Getty Images