Serious workplace injuries cost US manufacturers more than $7 billion each year, according to Liberty Mutual’s 2019 Workplace Safety Index. Overexertion, falls, collisions with equipment, getting caught in equipment and repetitive motion injuries are the most common reasons that workers in this sector miss 5 or more days of work. Compliance with OSHA standards and a culture that emphasizes safety are important elements of injury reduction. However, more solutions are needed, and the industrial internet of things (IIoT) is delivering them.
Network-connected wearables, sensors and tags are starting to make workers safer, and more safety innovations are in the pipeline. Beyond preventing accidents in the moment, IIoT analytics can help identify areas that need safety overhauls for better long-term worker protection.
Here’s how the IIoT is improving safety in each of the major manufacturing injury categories.
Prevent overexertion with real-time monitoring
Overexertion involving outside sources is the most frequent serious injury in manufacturing, costing $1.77 billion annually. Lifting, pulling, or pushing heavy objects is a frequent culprit. If the work takes place in hot weather, heat stress can make overexertion even more likely. IIoT technology can help reduce these risks.
It’s now possible to monitor individual workers’ stress responses with IoT-enabled wearables like wristbands, vests and shirts. For example, Japanese textile company Mitsufuji produces shirts made of conductive fiber to monitor the wearer’s heart and respiration rates, as well as the ambient temperature and humidity. The shirt’s transmitter sends data to the cloud for analysis. It can also alert supervisors when worker’s readings fall outside the safe range.
Real-time temperature and humidity sensors can also let workers and managers know when it’s unsafe to do physically intense tasks in an area, and identify times or days when it’s safer to work in those spaces.
A new and promising approach to cutting exertion injuries is the addition of IIoT capabilities to exoskeletons. Manufacturers like Ford have started adopting mechanical exoskeletons for their line workers, to assist with lifting heavy objects and managing repetitive tasks. Recently, German Bionic developed an IoT platform so its exoskeletons can connect with Smart Factory systems. This allows the exoskeletons to collect and report data that companies can use to improve working conditions and pinpoint the causes of injury, while the exoskeletons help workers avoid back injuries.
Getting help for falls faster
Falls on the same level (as opposed to falls from ladders and other equipment) are the second most common cause of serious injury in plants, representing $1.13 billion in yearly losses. Right now, IIoT wearables that include accelerometers and gyroscopes, like Mitsufuji’s shirts and Eleksen’s smart garments for industry, can detect worker falls in real time and alert supervisors for faster emergency response.
Keeping workers safe from collisions
The next most frequent cause of injury in manufacturing is collisions with objects, equipment, or vehicles, which accounts for 11% of total injuries. Two ways IIoT technology can help are real-time location systems and proximity detection. Real-time location systems can monitor worker movement out of and into hazardous or restricted zones. These systems can alert workers when they walk into an unsafe area—for example, a space where heavy equipment is in use—and alert supervisors, too.
Proximity detection uses RFID tags on machinery and worker clothing to keep workers and moving equipment from colliding. For example, the IIoT-enabled Guardhat hardhat system warns workers and equipment operators when they’re getting too close, so they can change course before there’s an accident.
Keeping workers away from hazardous equipment
Another application for proximity detection is to keep people from getting caught in equipment or crushed by objects, which is the 4th largest category of manufacturing injury. Combining proximity detection with real-time location detection can keep workers away from hazards and reduce entanglement risks even more. If there is an accident, biometric stress monitors and fall detection sensors can alert supervisors so they can summon help quickly.
Guarding against repetitive stress injuries
Repetitive motion injuries round out the top five in manufacturing. Posture monitors like the SoterSpine wearable device can reduce this kind of injury by alerting workers if they’re moving in ways that put them at risk. Feedback based on device readings shows workers how to move more safely and it gives them a dashboard where they can track their progress in changing their behavior.
Vibration sensors can help workers who handle pneumatic equipment to avoid potentially disabling hand-arm vibration syndrome. These sensors can collect exposure data for individual employees and send alerts when out-of-range vibration readings are detected.
In all these injury-prevention scenarios, the data collected by the IIoT system can be analyzed to make the plant safer. For example, an employee’s history of repetitive movement or hand-arm vibration exposure can help supervisors know when it’s time for breaks or assignment to different tasks. Analyzing proximity and real-time location datasets can reveal physical locations, times of day, or specific processes that have a higher risk of collisions, falls or entanglement of workers and equipment. Based on these capabilities, it’s safe to say that IIoT technology can reduce injury risks right now and has the potential to make plants safer overall in the years to come.
About the Author
Sam Cece was previously CEO of Virtual Bridges and CloudTools, acquired by Nimboxx and SolarWinds respectively. As CEO of StrongMail Systems, he expanded the company’s initial customer base to hundreds of business customers; StrongMail was named to the 2012 Forrester Wave Report shortlist. Cece was also BEA Systems’ Global Services President, growing the organization from $80M to $400M in annual revenues, and to more than 1000 employees across 26 countries. He received his B.S. from Woodbury University.
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