The tricky issues with wearables: Understanding the pros and cons of collecting data on your employees

In this Big Picture Interview, Christine LaVoi explores how devices meant to promote productivity and safety also raise privacy concerns.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

Christine LaVoi is senior client manager at IFS, and in a brief on generating revenue and increasing margins through aftermarket field service, she noted the potential of sensors and wearables to improve reporting and ensure that field service technicians stay on track, so to speak. With use of a GPS system that incorporates geofencing, for example, a manufacturer and the customer can be alerted when a technician arrives on and departs a job site. Plant Services’ Christine LaFave Grace recently spoke with LaVoi on whether workers will accept having their movements monitored in this way.

PS: Wearable technologies for industrial applications encompasses everything from smart glasses for augmented reality applications on the factory floor to clothing sensors designed for workers in hazardous environments. How and where are you seeing wearables being deployed?

CL: There’s a variety of things people are doing with wearable technology. We have a company that does mining, (and) they’re using wearables to sense temperature and to sense gas levels to know if the spot that their technician’s in is safe. Then they’re feeding that information to the device and they’re validating that data. We have a client that does radio towers in Montreal; they’re using wearables for things like weather sensing and notifying the tech to changes in climate conditions. Then we have other clients using wearables for something as simple as accepting a call on a smartwatch.

Nobody wants their technician to be texting and driving; nobody wants their technician to be doing anything that could put their safety at risk, so what wearables are giving people the ability to do is make their technicians safer, and there are all sorts of benefits to that. Workers compensation claims are expensive; employees getting injured impacts downtime; there are so many advantages (to wearables).

Wearables that can do GPS locations are having an impact on time reporting: With a combination of a wearable that says “This is where the technician is at” and GPS sensing, when I depart from my place of work, I can (a) send a notification to the customer that says that they’re en route, and (b) capture that data, because when I cross into the fence of the customer’s site, I can take those two points of data and instead of the technician having to record travel time, I can capture that automatically for them. Same thing when they depart the site. Then you know how long they were physically on site.

PS: Which, from the manufacturer’s perspective, could be valuable data to have and to trend when you’re planning time for service calls or looking for anomalies in transit or service times. But what do companies need to know to avoid running afoul of worker privacy protections?

CL: People have to pay attention, when they’re doing those types of things, to privacy laws. In some states you can only track during the workday; in some states (you’d be looking at) putting a sensor on a work truck because there’s less rules tracking the truck than there are tracking a person. When you’re looking at wearables particularly in location management, you really have to be sensitive to country or state rules to make sure that you’re not stepping over privacy laws, things like ensuring through settings that when (workers are) not on shift, you’re not tracking them.

PS:  Have you seen pushback from unions or other workers not thrilled to have their employer tracking them that closely?

CL: Three weeks ago I was out a customer site, and they had tried (wearable tech) for field service technicians, and they turned it off because they got so much pushback from their staff on Big Brother watching them. They went to tracking the work trucks instead. Their impression – this particular customer’s experience – is that people are better with understanding that the company is paying for the truck, so tracking the truck is better than tracking the person.

When we were talking about it, they’re still doing things like putting fences around places like local bars where they’ve had issues with guys hanging out during the workday. So they’d still know if a truck is there. You’d have to be smart enough to park the truck somewhere else (to not be found out).

With wearables, it depends – you’ve got to have some trust in the integrity of your employees, but you are still struggling with where they’re supposed to be. For example, you’re not supposed to be home during the workday; why is the truck showing you’re at home?

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