Oliver Marteaux, principal of horizon scanning at the RSSB, looks at wearable wellbeing.
RSSB, as part of the R&D cross-industry programme that it runs on the industry’s behalf, looks into emerging technologies and disruptive trends that are likely to have a profound and durable impact on tomorrow’s railway.
The current ‘horizon scanning’ series is looking at the “wearables disruption”, and at the opportunity it may represent for rail staff health and safety.
Smart wearables are already transforming healthcare, safety at work, and productivity in other sectors, and they have the potential to bring wider changes to the way businesses operate in general. This disruptive technology is not just fad and hype. Its adoption is picking up pace, and we believe it is here to stay, especially when we look at current sales volumes and at the huge investments that corporate giants like Alphabet (Google), Amazon and Apple are making into the healthcare digital applications of wearables (digital therapeutics).
Right now, the wearables that people are trying out mainly consist of smart watches and fitness wristbands that count steps, track physical activity, measure heart rate, assess stress levels, and provide a host of personal health analytics, but we also see a rising interest in specialised devices, including for monitoring and preventing risk from medical conditions.
In general, wearables bring benefits in terms of cheaper and richer access to health and safety data, and in terms of proactive caring. For industries like ours with safety critical operations, wearables can be a true asset. We know that the aviation industry has been using wearables for helping pilots plan sleep and manage jetlag; the oil and gas industry pioneered the measuring of exposure to hazardous substances and the monitoring of physiological reaction to working conditions; and fatigue and location monitoring with wearables are becoming important in civil engineering and in the construction industry.
Lone workers and risk environments
So, what are the prospects for deployment of the technology in the rail sector? There are at least three main categories of wearable applications for rail staff health and safety: the monitoring of lone workers and risky working environments, fatigue monitoring, and the management of medical conditions/impairments for accessibility to safety critical roles.
Many railway staff often work alone or operate in remote areas, next to fast speed lines, by risky embankments, or at dangerous heights. Furthermore, such activities often take place outside normal working hours, with the additional risks associated with late shifting. This does not only concern maintenance staff and engineers who are working trackside, ticket office workers, platform staff, train managers and drivers also face the risks of lone working.
Wearables can ensure we always keep an eye on our staff’s location and movement while they are in the field and offer direct communications and emergency alarms in case of trouble. Different technology solutions are available, and there are already standards (BS8484 and BS5979) defining the requirements for the devices and for the Alarm Receiving Centres. With the launch of the enhanced Sentinel card system, Network Rail has implemented two lone worker services, Heartbeat and Push4Help. Virgin Trains East Coast has provided its frontline staff with MySOS personal alarms from SkyGuard.
HAVs and dust
Workers on the rail network can also work in harsh conditions which bring specific risks, for example exposure to dust, high noise and vibration levels and air pollution. This is another instance where wearables can show their usefulness. Crossrail construction workers in the Whitechapel and Liverpool Street tunnels have been trialling wearable technology, supplied by Reactec, capable of measuring hand-arm vibration (HAV).
Fatigue monitoring is another key application of wearables. The consequences of fatigue during work are not to be underestimated, especially where workers often have irregular shift patterns or are required to focus for long periods of time. The Incident Factor Classification System developed by RSSB as part of the Safety Management Information System (SMIS) identified fatigue as a key factor in 21 per cent of high-risk incidents between 2011-2013. Furthermore, fatigue can be costly to employers beyond the risk of accidents, incidents and ill-health, in that it makes expensive mistakes more likely, reduces productivity and morale, and increases absenteeism. It has been estimated that the cost of insufficient sleep to the UK economy is £40 billion per year.
Wearables can provide a wealth of real-time data and new indicators and insights to inform the decisions of workers, managers and safety, health and wellbeing specialists. Some wearables that monitor activity and sleep can be worn both on and off shift, while other devices monitor subtle cues (heart rate, eye movement, temperature, blood pressure) and compare them to machine learning algorithms to identify a drop in alertness, or drowsiness, encouraging workers to take a break from their task prior to experiencing a microsleep during work. For example, Optalert provides lightweight drowsiness detection glasses, which work by using an LED built into the frame to measure the operator’s eyelid movement. SmartCap is a piece of headwear fitted with a removable sensor to monitor truck driver electrical brain activity (EEG). A Fujitsu collar with an ear clip that identifies episodes of drowsiness by measuring vital signs such as pulse rate was piloted for eight weeks by Amey for its staff working on Highway England’s North East Regional Maintenance Contract. These devices should be regarded as what they are – a very useful source of additional indicators to inform safe decisions, and good complements to existing fatigue performance indicators and risk controls.
Wearable technology also has the potential to make rail a more accessible workplace for people with specific medical conditions, such as diabetes, or with sensory impairments, notably for hearing. RSSB-funded research has already demonstrated that safety critical staff using digital hearing aids do not bring additional risk when working in a safe environment. In the field of diabetes management, continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) devices already provide less intrusive, troublesome or time-consuming methods. Research is being carried into wearables patches for monitoring blood sugar levels and for injecting insulin, which will make the difference between diabetic and non-diabetic workers even thinner in the future.
These examples show that wearables have a fantastic potential for rail applications. This said, it is tempting to forget about their current limitations or their possible shortcomings.
First of all, as wearables are basically a set of on-body sensors using wireless communications, they may be prone to technical failures or show lack of reliability in some circumstances. Each device will need a robust validation system in place before they can be deployed in a safety critical environment. Second, some devices may be in need of some further scientific validation: for instance, wearables currently do not provide a direct measurement of “fatigue”, but instead make assumptions and calculations to infer drowsiness, alertness or other related states, which is quite different. How do we know for sure that someone who is not showing any sign of eyelid movement is not experiencing microsleep?
Third, wearables may lead to changes in behaviour, which will have their own safety consequences. If the industry becomes over-reliant on them, especially in safety critical contexts, situations may arise where workers go to work when they shouldn’t, for example when they are extremely tired but trusting the system to stop or alert them in time.
The technical and scientific validation of specialised wearables is therefore key for their successful deployment. Furthermore, sound regulatory frameworks which can guarantee adequate data privacy, data protection, and the ethical use of wearable data are essential for social acceptance. To overcome these challenges and reap the benefits of these technologies, collaboration is key.
What is needed is the joint expertise of those developing and supplying wearables working together with stakeholders from across rail and other sectors that have similar challenges.