Why think twice about smart personal protective equipment

Seeing smart wearables through rose-colored glasses? This list of pros & cons looks at smart personal protective equipment from a new perspective.

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by Elaine Ye

What makes a smart move in technology? It’s not just about tapping into the most advanced devices, like smart personal protective equipment. It’s also knowing when not to. Today, Industry 4.0 calls us to automate more, and for some that automatically means using smart technology. However, while wearables can bring faster insights into facilities’ health and safety, these learnings come with larger challenges. Before you take the plunge with smart PPE, take a closer look at its problems alongside its pros.

In this article:

Smart personal protective equipment offers more safety insights

Smart personal protective equipment offers more safety insights

Unlike traditional PPE, smart personal protective equipment has the extra appeal of responding to the wearer’s surroundings. Many smart PPE devices have sensors built-in to monitor the wearers’ movement, location, environment, temperature, and even heart rate. This monitoring gives more actionable insights for injury prevention.

One example is color-changing gloves. These gloves’ materials detect airborne toxins in the workplace and change color to alert workers. –

… but it presents some lesser-known risks

Alongside smart wearables’ protective (and pretty cool) rewards come additional safety risks. These can come in the form of hindered ergonomics, obstruction, harmful materials, and even dangerous distraction. For example, workers can be caught off-guard or interrupted by real-time messages popping up or audio diverting their attention at critical moments.

As such, you’ll need to revise your PPE training programs to introduce the newly adopted technology. Besides just proper “don, doff, adjust, and wear” (under US OSHA, for example), your expanded training programs should also cover smart PPE’s:

  • potential hazards and dangers of improper usage
  • required inspection and proper maintenance (which may need to be carried out by specialists or a third-party provider)
  • limitations, such as of its detecting range or protection capacity (e.g., temperature and weight limits)
  • safe and proper disposal when no longer in use, such as electronic or battery components

Be sure to bring on this technology only if you truly need it – not as a nice-to-have. First make sure that your activities require an extra level of insight into safety. If so, look at how you might need to adapt your procedures or restrict the smart PPE’s features to avoid hazards.

It enables a swifter reaction time after incidents

Like with more effective injury prevention, smart personal protective equipment allows you to react more efficiently when the inevitable does happen.

Take the example of a fall. In this situation, a smart wearable detects the sudden, drastic drop of the worker’s distance from the ground and change in heart rate. Then, it alerts the site by triggering an emergency setting through the connected network or dialing for emergency and paramedic assistance. As a result, teams are aware of the incident in less time, and there’s more chance of preventing the injury from worsening.

… that is, if you have the right resources to start with

Smart PPE’s convenience comes at a cost. In addition to the expanded training and proper maintenance mentioned above, you’ll also need to ensure additional resources.

Back-ups and bandwidth

Authorities recommend keeping conventional PPE available for backup at least during the transition period. And as you get employees up to speed on how to properly use smart PPE, make sure they’re still up to date on how to do so for the previous equipment. That means double the storage, double the training, double the effort.

A reliable (and unrestricted) connection

Your business can only leverage real-time communications if your network connection is powerful enough. Should your network go offline, all the advantages of faster collaboration and data transmission go out the window. And even with a reliable connection, keep in mind that your data security parameters might cause a problem. If your technological infrastructure is closed due to certain confidentiality reasons, this benefit will be blocked before you begin.

Standardization for smart personal protective equipment is starting to pick up.

Smart technology is a fairly new (and sometimes confusing) concept in the realm of EHS. However, the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) recently tried to put this topic into official terms. The committee defines smart PPE as “personal protective equipment that … exhibits an intended and exploitable response either to changes in its surroundings/environment or to an external signal/input.” And the CEN also published a standardization request for EU member states to follow suit.

Some countries have answered this call, already initiating a standardization process for smart PPE. Germany’s Kommission Arbeitsschutz und Normung is in the process of doing so for wearable and smart textile/non-textile elements. The original post pointed to more information by the end of this year, but more details are more likely to come in 2022. Looking at the bigger picture, due to smart PPE’s wide range of variety, standardization across the globe could be a gradual process. And even once standards are in place, they won’t put requirement confusion to an end.

Be sure to bring on this technology only if you truly need it – not as a nice-to-have.

… but being compliant will be more complicated.

Let’s be honest. Smart PPE is some trendy equipment to employ in the workforce. And trendy can be tricky. Currently, there are no regulations or restrictions specific to using smart personal protective equipment at the workplace. But they’re coming.

 

At minimum, smart personal protective equipment must meet the same regulatory specifications for “conventional” PPE. These include ANSI standards under the US OSHA and Regulation (EU) 2016/425 in EU member states. For instance, being of safe design and good construction and kept in a sanitary and reliable condition (OSHA 1910.1301).

At most, smart PPE will be subject to many other requirements. These depend on your choice of devices and how you use them in operations. For instance, chemical restrictions in smart wearables, electrical safety regulations, battery safety requirements, industrial hygiene standards, and electromagnetic compatibility testing could all fall under your obligations. Plus, this advanced technology’s complex nature stands to complicate things even more.

 

Data security concerns continue to grow.

Smart technology often includes the Internet of Things (IoT), or interconnection via the internet in everyday objects. In most cases, this is to facilitate real-time communication and data transmission during operation. Regulators want to ensure that this facilitation doesn’t forgo data security.

For example, California adopted its law to regulate the security associated with IoT (Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.91.04(a)). In it, IoT manufacturers are required to equip the device with reasonable security features to “protect the device and any information contained therein from unauthorized access, destruction, use, modification, or disclosure.” At this stage, the law doesn’t directly impose any obligations on user companies, but you’ll need to be aware of potential impact if procuring smart PPE.

Protecting personal data as a priority.

Additionally, smart PPE falls under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). According to this regulation, employers processing the personal data of EU citizens or residents (regardless of the place of business) must implement appropriate data security measures to protect it. This includes the biometrics and other personal information that smart PPE collects when monitoring workers.

As smart PPE sits squarely on regulators’ radar, you can expect to see more requirements come onto the scene. To stay compliant, your program will need to meet these forthcoming requirements.

A word to the wise about smart personal protective equipment

We all know that functional (and compliant) PPE is a key element of ensuring safe and healthy working conditions. But there is uncertainty about just how advanced PPE needs to be to protect workers. While smart PPE provides potential safety enhancements it can also pose new hazards and hassles. As you navigate this new era of EHS, be careful of stepping into new technology too soon by considering these regulatory and practical concerns:

  • Do the risks outweigh the reward?
  • Are my facilities fully prepared to implement smart PPE?
  • Can my business keep up with upcoming requirements?

Your answers will ensure your next step in advancing your business at the right pace – without sacrificing your safety program.

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