Wearable devices can prevent accidents

Wearable devices such as vests and belt clips, among others, are attracting investments from insurers who believe such safety devices can prevent workplace accidents. Some insurers even see a role for wearable devices in returning injured employees to work.

AIG, one of the largest insurers in the country, stirred a lot of interest recently when it announced its "strategic investment" in New York-based Human Condition Safety. The company is among the startups piloting sensor technology which can alert workers of impending hazards and accidents.

Insurance broker Marsh uses the following example: Consider two electricians working on construction projects. Both wrongly assume the power to the circuits they're working on has been shut down. One taps in and suffers severe burns. Across town, in a similar situation, another worker is about to do the same when a sensor in his vest lights up and emits a high-pitched warning, alerting him the power is still on and thus allowing him to work without incident.

Sensors can be life-saving in another common scenario: if a worker wanders into the path of a forklift, sensors can warn both the wayward employee and the forklift driver. Sensors can also capture body movements and identify bad habits - such as improper lifting techniques - and help employers develop best practices to reduce injury rates, improve productivity, and promote safety.

Crane Worldwide Logistics tested one such product to measure the number of high-risk lifts performed per day - an average of 140 - and identify the riskiest time of day, which turned out to be before lunch and an hour before the end of a shift. "With additional training and real-time feedback, the Houston-based transportation and logistics services provider saw an 84% reduction in the number of high-risk lifts performed per shift", according to Business Insurance.

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"It just makes a lot of sense,"" says Haytham Elhawary, CEO of Kinetic, a New York-based company that created a wearable safety device for industrial workers. "Right now the data insurance companies have is mostly after the fact - it's once a claim has happened, once an injury has happened. (A wearable safety device) gives you data about risk, before an injury has happened. The next logical step is to gather this type of data," he told the publication.

Some observers foresee that employers who adopt state-of-the-art devices may be able to secure better pricing from insurers or obtain coverage on better terms. Business Insurance adds one model familiar to many consumers and insurers is the way Allstate Insurance Co. promotes its Drivewise device, which drivers plug into their vehicles and earn rewards for safe driving behaviors such as avoiding high speeds and hard stops.

"We think there's a big future in wearables," says Adam Bellin, director of business development at Human Condition Safety. "Most safety-related data going forward will be real-time and mobile, provisioned through wearable sensors. And for the most progressive companies, we predict that real-time, onsite data will be critical to success," he told Marsh.