Wearable technology: The new game changer in workers’ compensation

Wearable technology has moved beyond Google Glasses and your average activity tracker.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recent approval of the exoskeleton — which enables individuals who are disabled or paralyzed to walk again — is one dramatic example of how this advancing technology can revolutionize the treatment of injured workers.

What is wearable technology anyway? It’s defined as a category of technology devices that can be worn by an individual to collect tracking information related to health and fitness. Some wearables have small motion sensors to take photos and sync with mobile devices to report data back to the user.

In this March 20, 2016, photo, Ben Hansen, chief technology officer of Motus Global, explains how five sensors placed in compression clothing measure crucial baseball player data, such as hip speed or torque on the elbow, in Bradenton, Fla. According to the Associated Press, Major League Baseball's playing rules committee approved two devices for use during games this season. Similar devices could help other workers who lift and twist on the job. (AP Photo/Tamara Lush, File)

Evolving technology

 The twin functions of monitoring and reporting are intended to inform, inspire, and encourage compliance with wellness goals. However, as technology evolves, it’s apparent that the reach of wearable technology extends much further than just tracking health and fitness data.

 Today, many wearable devices are embedded in jewelry, clothing, shoes, bionic suits and smart helmets. These wearables use sophisticated biosensors to track metrics such as physical activity, heart rate, fatigue, stress and mood.

Wearables may be one of the fastest growing technology sectors. (Photo: iStock)

Why wear a tracking device?

 Why, other than curiosity, would someone agree to wear a device tracking their health and fitness? According to a Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) report on the future of wearable technology, three out of four reported that they would do so if their doctor recommended, while almost as many — 68 percent — said they would use one if their insurance company recommended it or provided it. Clearly, consumer acceptance of wearables is high.

 Are people concerned about the data that is generated by a wearable being seen by others? Apparently not. PwC found that three out of four are interested in sharing their data with doctors to help treatments and 70 percent are interested in sharing their data with their insurance company to reduce premiums. 

 Wearables may be one of the fastest growing technology sectors, predicted to hit $10 billion annually within the next three years — but it’s a mistake to think of wearable in terms of gimmicks and “Inspector Gadget”-like applications. They’re poised to become a major disruptive trend in the management of injured workers. And the workers’ compensation industry is staking a claim in wearable technology.


Wearables may be one of the fastest growing technology sectors. (Photo: iStock)

Wearables in the workplace

 Employers and payers already are adopting wearable technology in the workplace to reduce costs and improve safety and productivity through injury prevention and recovery. Applications can range from tracking locations to reduce the risk of injury in unsafe areas, to monitoring posture and compliance with ergonomic use of equipment, to using smart wheelchairs and exoskeletons to improve and restore mobility.

 The RIMS 2016 presentation, “The New Game Changer in Managing Worksite Health: Wearable Technology,” identified four main categories of wearable technology with significant potential for workers’ compensation:


  • Postural Devices: The use of postural devices in the workplace is intended to positively remind employees to be aware of their posture throughout the day. Workers are sent an alert if they repeatedly slouch or deviate from an ergonomically correct position. This assistive technology benefits employees by reminding them to stretch or adjust periodically while also helping to prevent ergonomic-related workers’ compensation claims.

  • Activity Trackers: If a physical therapist has recommended physical activities such as daily walks to rebuild muscle strength, the case manager can track the degree of activity of that injured worker. If the tracking device records lower physical activity levels than prescribed, intervention and counseling can take place to improve compliance or develop a different treatment plan.

  • Exoskeletons: Injured workers such as paraplegics, amputees, and individuals with disabilities that include gait impediments can reclaim a part of their lives they thought was lost forever: walking. Recently approved by the FDA, Indego exoskeletons hold the potential to transform recovery in workers’ compensation claims by expanding the injured worker’s environment and level of independence, as well as increasing productivity and reducing the need for in-home care and other assistive devices.

  • Location trackers. In industries such as construction and mining, location trackers are an effective tool for injury prevention along with employee communication. From a prevention perspective, trackers can be set up to alert employers when workers enter unsafe areas. From a communications perspective, trackers allow employers to locate their employees in the event of an emergency for evacuation purposes. In addition, employees who are in danger can have a panic button feature that lets supervisors know immediately that they need help while transmitting their location.

Location trackers also can assist employees with brain injuries during the healing process. These trackers broadcast a constant GPS location to caretakers, and most feature a panic button, which allows for a measure of independence and safety in the event the injured worker wanders, becomes lost or is confused.

 Recently, an injured worker recovering from a brain injury disappeared from home during a storm. The former employer engaged their entire staff to assist with locating their colleague. The use of location tracking can prevent such safety situations from occurring along with reducing the risk for additional compensable injuries.


Wearables are already beginning to improve the way workers’ compensation injuries are managed and prevented, getting injured workers healthy and back on the job quickly and safely. (Photo: iStock)

Determining the right wearables for an injured worker


Working with assistive technology professionals (ATPs) and rehab specialists to evaluate injured workers and their home and work environments is the first step in helping to determine the best treatment approach for an individual’s needs.

 Once the appropriate device is identified, the key to effective implementation of wearable technology is to support and train the injured worker and ensure the device is used correctly to track and transmit accurate metrics. Additionally, because of how new this technology is, clear communication, training and protection of personal data must go hand in hand to facilitate the adoption of wearable technology in the workplace or at home.  

Wearables hold enormous potential to help us better manage risk and reduce costs — while also giving seriously injured workers independence and an enhanced quality of life they may have never thought possible.

Wearables are already beginning to improve the way workers’ compensation injuries are managed and prevented, getting injured workers healthy and back on the job quickly and safely. Although the industry is currently in the “early adopter” stage of incorporating wearables into its tool kit, we can expect to see considerable transformation in medical management and case management within the next several years.

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