Wearing Your Data On Your Sleeve

People & Organizations

Wearing Your Data On Your Sleeve: The Promises And Pitfalls Of Wearables

January 25th, 2018


For the past few centuries, whenever anyone glanced at their watch, it was to check the time. Today, if someone is glancing at their wrist, they could be checking their blood sugar levels, step count, exact location, or their heart rate. These data points can, in turn, be used to optimize their health and behavior. While your watch might once have simply told you it was lunchtime, now it can tell you what to eat and why.

The arrival of the smartwatch as a part of everyday life is just one aspect of the spread of wearable technology. Around 20 percent of people in the U.S. now own a wearable device. Research firm Gartner predicts the market will be worth $34 billion by 2020. Wearables have arrived, and they are here to stay.

Organizations are also beginning to use the technology to improve safety and increase employee productivity. Wearables can detect whether a worker is taking an unsafe route through a construction site, or lifting an object in a potentially poor posture, for example.

However, with the many promises that wearables – and the data they generate – can bring, there is also increased risk: From liability, to data ownership and privacy concerns. Understanding the type of data needed to make essential business decisions – and what to do with it once they have it – will help company leaders invest in the right technology, and move from reacting to events to creating opportunities.


In Depth

Transforming Risk Management

From insurance costs to improved safety programs, wearables have the opportunity to transform how an organization optimizes its operations. Knowing more about a risk means that you can proactively manage it. Wearables can generate huge amounts of data about the moment-to-moment state of the human body, and this could have an impact on behavior.

Increasing Safety With The Right Data

“Data derived from wearables can not only help prevent workplace injuries, but also help an organization glean insights that help them improve the overall workplace environment,” explains Scott Smith, Ergonomics Director, Aon Global Risk Consulting.

For example, a device worn by a construction worker could identify any physical risks they encounter on a day-to-day basis, and how frequently they encounter them. As soon as a worker starts to carry out a dangerous activity, supervisors can be alerted to step in before an accident occurs and develop enough data along the way to change the actual process.

“Managers can look at various data points to understand the risk factors that cause costly injuries,” says Smith. “Not only is there an opportunity to reduce worker’s compensation claims but also take necessary steps to prevent future injuries.”

Performance Optimization

As well as avoiding hazards, wearable technology can also help drive positive changes in behavior. “These technologies can help us improve overall human performance,” says Smith. Forward-thinking organizations, he explains, are beginning to pose larger questions to make the most of these new technologies. “We’re beginning to see companies ask themselves: ‘How do we use this data to actually make the job not just safer, but actually more productive?’”

By analyzing data, employers can identify inefficient or costly behaviors in their workforce, and make changes to operations to circuit those inefficiencies.

Data Informing Process Design

It’s not just safety and performance improvements that are possible – wearables can also help make important production design decisions. Imagine workers on an assembly line who are tasked with snapping one piece of a product on to another. With wearable technology, the data collected can help inform which production processes requires the most and least force to assemble the product, and potential product design can be adjusted accordingly. This data could also be used to reduce exposure to physically demanding jobs, by allowing an employer to implement a job rotation system that is based on employee data.

Wearables And Improving Claims Management

In addition to providing information so that managers can address risky behaviors, wearables also provide new ways to gather and process first-hand data around a loss event, when a claim is being made.

For example, greater knowledge of a person’s location and actions at a given moment provides more data to understand how an accident unfolded, and helps better identify the parties or behaviors responsible. Data from wearables can also demonstrate the extent of an injury. In 2014, a Canadian Court ruled that the Fitbit data of a personal trainer involved in a car accident was admissible in court as evidence of their subsequent incapacity.

Data collected from body-mounted cameras can improve the quality of claims reporting at loss sites, and allow information from multiple agents to be easily integrated. These devices provide real-time incident footage, in the same way that dashboard-mounted cameras are finding a role in documenting and establishing liability in car accidents.

Risks To The Wearer?

While wearables may provide us with new ways to assess and improve possibly hazardous workplaces and behaviors and give a better picture of events after a loss, they also create new challenges:

Ambiguous Liability: Data from wearables may create new liability for companies if it has not been actioned prior to an accident. “What happens if someone really does get hurt, and you have the data that indicate you could have prevented it?” asks Smith. “In the event of a lawsuit, that data could be subpoenaed and used against you.” For example, in the state of California, employees can file claims against their employer for “workplace stress.” If people were wearing devices that collected heart rate or anxiety levels, Smith explains, they could have a case to build against their employer.

Privacy Concerns: Gartner predicts that up to 2 million people will soon be required to use wearable devices by their employees. This could start with industries where the physical state of the worker is crucial to their ability to perform their job, like airline pilots and firefighters. While this may prevent costly accidents, there are increasing questions around individual privacy.

Data Ownership: As organizations begin to require the use of wearables, crucial questions about data ownership arise. Who actually owns the data? The U.S. National Football League (NFL), for example, is currently engaged in a program where top athletes can sell their biometric data to those eager to improve their own levels of physical fitness.

Smith notes that this is new territory: “From the device manufacturer, to the organization who purchased the device, or the individual wearing it, ownership is tricky and not well defined.”

Cyber Vulnerability: Perhaps the greatest risk to all users of wearables is the risk of the device being hacked into – giving someone access to a huge amount of detailed personal information, right down to what you can see in front of you. In addition to the danger of personal data being compromised, the business is open to hacking via the device. In its Cyber Security Predictions for 2018, Stroz Friedberg, an Aon company, warns that hackers are targeting the connected devices sold by small manufacturers to gain access to larger companies.

Unhealthy Lifestyles: Wearable devices may end up being less popular with, for example, people who are living unhealthy lifestyles, or are burdened with pre-existing conditions, who fear that health insurance might become more expensive or even impossible to obtain.

Navigating The Opportunities And Risks Of Wearables

In every business sector, and in both public and private life, we are moving into a world in which data are omnipresent and abundant. The human body is just the latest aspect of our lives to be digitally tracked and quantified.

Being able to measure and manage every aspect of our physical lives will inevitably bring great benefits and new risks. More data always lead to greater vulnerability. But if the benefits of wearables are sufficiently felt by the wearer then many may well decide it is worth the risk. And checking your watch could become an infinitely more interesting activity.


Talking Points

“Wearables, which harness the power of the rapidly expanding Internet of Things technology, clearly offer more opportunity for major advancements in workplace safety than we have seen in decades. It’s not surprising that wearables are starting to disrupt sports with their ability to help keep athletes on the field, but the potential opportunities in the workplace are seemingly endless for safety” – Paul Marushka, President & CEO, Sphera Solutions

“Though IoT devices and wearables don’t necessarily create new security vulnerabilities, they reintroduce a lot of old ones” – Steve Manzuik, Director of Security Research, Duo Security

Further Reading

This Is The Future Of Wearables In The Workplace – Tech Revolution Asia, December 5, 2017

Consumer Interest In Wearables Is Picking Up – Business Insider, December 12, 2017

Three Emerging Technologies With The Biggest Data Security Risks – Law.com, January 16, 2018

Insurers Will Still Be Relevant In The Future, Even More Than Yesterday – Business Reporter, January 8, 2018

Wearable Technology Could Improve Productivity Despite Staff Reservations – Aon.com