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Ahead of the rest

24 January 2018

Georgina Bisby investigates the challenges and opportunities around smart technology in above-the-neck PPE

The current trend towards smart personal protective equipment (PPE), which incorporates advanced technologies including Internet of Things (IoT) and sensors into wearable protective equipment, is expected to continue and accelerate in 2018, according to the report Global Smart PPE Market 2017-2021 published by Technavio.

As the rise of Industry 4.0 gathers pace, PPE is an obvious opportunity for introducing smart technology into the workplace and large scale investment and product development is seeing technologies move quickly from trial phases onto the market. Simon Field, a technical specialist at science-based technology company 3M, who, according to the Technavio report, is one of the key players in the smart PPE space along with Honeywell, DAQRI and General Electric, says: “Going forward, I think smart and connected personal protective equipment (PPE) will become much more commonplace across a wide range of industries. Technology is permeating our personal and work lives like never before, and the potential benefits for workplace safety are significant. Innovations in above-the-neck PPE have the potential to revolutionise the field of workplace safety, helping workers to avoid hazards more effectively and simply than ever before.”

Field gives the example of 3M’s Organic Gas and Vapour End of Service Life Indicator Filters as a case where smart technology is improving worker safety. The filters use End of Service Life Indicator (ESLI) technology to give users a clear visual warning when they need to change their filters. This technology, which is said to be the first of its kind, can help to combat the problem of some respiratory protective equipment (RPE) users only changing their filters once they detect contaminant odour, taste or contamination inside the respirator, meaning the substance has already broken through.

Cleo Cabuz, vice president of engineering and chief technology officer for Honeywell Industrial Safety, believes that above-the-neck PPE is one of the areas where some of the most exciting technology developments are set to take place in terms of smart PPE: “In the era of Industry 4.0, RFID and Bluetooth-enabled PPE can already connect to smartphones to become edge devices able to collect and transmit data. In future, by using retrofitted wireless data transfer technology, like Near Field Communication (NFC), everything from eyewear to hardhats could become connected, while further innovations in wearable sensors could make it possible to monitor any parameter that affects a worker’s health."

In hearing protection, for example, one of the key trends is enhancing communication while preserving hearing in the long term, explains Cabuz: “Increasingly, devices such as earmuffs are becoming communication hubs that connect to smartphones via Bluetooth, enabling workers to answer phone calls, hear alarms or receive vital instructions without putting their hearing at risk. Additionally, the integration of miniaturised microphones to register residual noise, combined with software and cloud technology, is enabling a new, app-based approach to hearing conservation, with the ability to monitor sound exposure in real time and fight noise induced hearing loss (NIHL).” 

According to Cabuz, hardhats also have great potential to be transformed into smart devices which could help the safety industry move towards an information-driven approach to workplace risk reduction: “Hardhats embedded with miniaturised biometric sensors could gauge and monitor in real time, through sweat and pulse, vital parameters such as heart rate, body temperature, and stress, which can be early signs of an imminent threat."

There are already examples of smart technology being integrated into headwear on the market. For example the Australian company Smart Cap Technology is helping companies to manage worker fatigue with its LifeBand device which can be fitted to headwear including safety helmets. Smart Cap’s early warning alarms, combined with real-time monitoring enables proactive intervention to better manage fatigue risk which could be particularly useful for preventing drivers from falling asleep at the wheel. 

Augmented Reality as a Health & Safety management tool

Not only is smart PPE a way of keeping workers healthier and safer but it also provides a vehicle for iintroducing technology such as Augmented Reality (AR) which offers numerous opportunities and benefitsin terms of managing occupational health & safety. In 2017 DAQRI ran a trial of smart helmets which incorporated professional industrial grade wearable technology to provide users with instant and relevant information, overlaid on their line of sight. The DAQRI Smart Helmet was a developer edition explains Jason Haggar, vice president, global partner & developer programs at DAQRI. “We learned a lot from our customers of the DAQRI Smart Helmet, one learning being that they wanted lighter weight glasses, and so we moved the Computing and Battery Pack out of the helmet (and the corresponding weight off the user’s head) and into a belt-worn “Compute Pack”.  In the words of one of our early adopter customers, 'I don’t want to wear an entire computer on my head.'”  

Subsequently in November 2017, DAQRI launched the DAQRI Smart Glasses, a wearable AR solution that is also certified to eye and face protection safety certifications: ANSI Z87.1, EN166 1S and EN167.

It’s early days for AR as an HSE management tool – DAQRI reports most customers are starting with training use cases, but many companies are also looking at using AR to visualise dangerous areas (ex: tagging a hot pipe or electrical danger) something which DAQRI has recently successfully trialled with Siemens. Key customer feedback is that as well as keeping workers healthier and safer, being able to get work instructions, training, or remote expert help via Augmented Reality is saving employers time and money.

DAQRI is currently evaluating PPE and head protection options that work with the DAQRI Smart Glasses, and say they will have some future news on this topic: “We understand that many customers require a combination of PPE and a wearable AR solution,” says Haggar.

There are plenty of other names to watch in the Smart PPE space. For example General Electric Oil and Gas has developed a Smart Helmet which allows the wearer to connect with remote engineers for faster troubleshooting through a shared collaboration space featuring live feed and direct audio contact with the site.

Meanwhile New York based Human Condition Safety (HCS) is creating a suite of tools that helps workers and their managers prevent injuries before they happen. Incorporating wearable devices, artificial intelligence, building information modelling and cloud computing, the product suite is being designed for the industries that hold the highest risk for workers, including manufacturing, energy, warehousing and distribution, and construction.

Meeting the needs of a changing workforce

Honeywell’s Cabuz thinks the rise of smart PPE is good news for a workforce with a changing demographic: “This connected approach could encourage the uptake and correct use of PPE among millennials, who are expected to make up 50 per cent of the global working population by 2020. By equipping itself with the kind of technology that meets the expectations of this generation of digital-natives, the safety industry will put itself in the best position to protect their health in the long term. 

“At the other end of the spectrum, smart PPE that can address the needs of the ageing workforce will be of increasing importance. Statistics show that occupational fatalities are more likely to occur among older workers with many of these fatalities due to lack of appropriate preventative measures and effective rescue procedures."

What about the risks?

The advantages of smart PPE are clear but with questions remaining about the impact of wireless technology on human health are people going to be comfortable with all of this technology being concentrated above the neck?

PPE specialist Intellinium does’t think so which is why they have developed what is said to be the first Smart Safety Shoe. Using “health by design” and “health by default” principles similar to “Privacy By Design” and “Privacy By Default”, Intellium spent six months researching the best location for its smart hub and concluded that the foot was a good candidate since it is far from the head, breast and genital area. This hub located in a smart connected safety shoe is designed to connect to other wearables using a lower emitting protocol such as BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy). In addition, Intellium located its technology on top of the upper shoe to give more distance between the body and the electronics rather than using a smart sole which the company said could place the telecom antennae too close to the body. 

How much of a concern the location of smart technology is will depend on the individual technology and how long a worker is wearing it for but understandably workers expect anything they are wearing above the neck to be both comfortable and safe so these considerations are likely to strongly influence product design. As DAQRI found, people don’t want to wear a whole computer on their head so perhaps the smart money when it comes to future developments is on PPE with smart functionality but with the bulk of the electronics based elsewhere.