Employers must strike a balance between collecting usable data and protecting workers’ privacy.
RISK FOCUS: WORKERS’ COMPENSATION
With Wearable Tech, Trust Is
The degree to which
effectively collect data
on their employees
hinges upon trust and
By Susannah Levine
Yielding to a moment of childlike joie de vivre, a construction worker on a school renovation site slid about 16 feet down the stairway bannister. Alerted by the array of sensors in the worker’s wearable tracking device and fearing a fall, the safety supervisor sped to the location the device’s real-time interior location services indicated. He found the
worker calmly proceeding with his work, according to an anecdote related by
Peter Schermerhorn, chief operating officer for Triax Technologies, which makes
wearable technologies for construction site safety.
Rather than broken bones and a hefty workers’ compensation claim, the
worker’s only injury was to his pride as he submitted to a gentle reminder of the
company’s safety culture and some less-gentle teasing from his colleagues.
The story, however, could just as easily have had a darker ending, said public
interest attorney Harvey Rosenfield, founder, Consumer Watchdog. The worker
could have been fired for his momentary, presumably private lapse.
Alternatively, the wearable device could have captured biometric data
suggesting a congenital heart defect, leading to his dismissal or making him
ineligible for health insurance in the future due to a pre-existing condition.
The tension between the benign, putative use of collected data and its potential
for misuse could redefine the relationship between employers, employees and
insurers, said Edward McNicholas, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP. McNicholas
counsels companies on data privacy.
The degree to which companies can successfully collect data pivots on trust.
Companies must be transparent about what data they’re collecting and how they
will use it, said Bill Spiers, vice president, risk control consulting practice leader,
Lockton Companies. Spiers says pre-loss data technologies are “exciting tools to
prevent injury” but he sees the potential for litigation if they’re misused.
“If you get buy-in from workers, compliance isn’t a problem. When you bait
and switch, that gets to be a problem in the workplace. Responsible companies
embrace the fact that their employees are their most precious asset,” Spiers said.
“They want employees to go home as they left.”
Successful workplace surveillance programs depend on “a unified, coherent,
non-hypocritical approach,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney, Electronic
Spiers sees “only a bright future” when companies keep trust with their employees.
But when they break it, he said, not only will employees push back, but the data
collected may not even be very useful in workers’ compensation cases. “There would
Responsible use will also foster more product development and adoption of
tracking technologies, said McNicholas. “If the employer explains what data
is to be collected and how it is to be used, and employees trust that it’s used as
described, more of these technologies will be adopted.”
PREVENTION AND RECOVERY BENEFITS
Wearable tracking technologies have applications both in wellness and injury
prevention and treatment, and many are time-tested and accepted, such as the
personal dosimeter radiation technicians attach to their scrubs to monitor exposures
and the GPS firefighters wear in case they’re trapped in a blaze.
“The purpose of the technology is
to drive a safer environment, to look at
how workers do their job,” said Zack
Craft, vice president, rehab technology
and complex care, One Call.
On the rehabilitation side, he said,
a tracker could collect data on stress
to an injured worker’s shoulders as he
propels his wheelchair. This could lead
to a decision to give him a scooter,
hastening his recovery.
Wearable technologies are a great
“If you get buy-in from
tool for ergonomists to engineer risk out
workers, compliance isn’t
a problem. When you bait
and switch, that gets to be a
problem in the workplace.”
—Bill Spiers, vice president, risk control consulting
practice leader, Lockton Companies
• Employers must be transparent
about how they will use data
collected from wearables.
• Responsible usage will spur
growth in the market.
• Courts will expect solid
justification for infringement of