Digital at work: Wearables in workers' comp

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In today's modern world, more individuals are using wearable devices to help them stay connected, keep better track of their daily activities, and achieve their health, fitness, and overall wellness goals. But with improving technology and expanding opportunities, wearable devices are now taking on much larger roles.

A wearable device—typically thought of in terms of fitness trackers and smart watches—is any advanced electronic device with smart sensors, worn or carried on the body, that seamlessly collects and transmits data through some type of network connection, such as cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or GPS.

More and more, employers are looking at how wearable technology can be implemented in the workplace, with improving employee safety as a primary goal. Devices can allow companies to monitor and track activities, analyze motions, alert for hazards, and augment physical capabilities, among other things.

Workers compensation has experienced a long-term decline in overall claim frequency, with a 19% decrease from Accident Year 2011 to Accident Year 2016. Among other causes, NCCI research points to automation, robotics, and continued advances in safety as contributing factors to the decrease. However, during this same time period, total claim severity increased 13%.

Could these frequency and severity workplace injury trends be impacted by the use of wearable devices? What impact could the widespread use of wearable devices have on the workers compensation system? NCCI interviewed workers compensation stakeholders for their views on this evolving topic.

How prevalent are wearables in workers compensation?

When it comes to workers compensation, wearables are in their infancy. While wearables are being tested today by insurance companies, as well as other employers and their workers, the technology and its potential is primarily in the proof-of-concept phase.

Companies are expressing interest in exploring uses for wearables as advances are made, yet only a handful of companies have piloted the technology to date, according to the stakeholders we interviewed. Similarly, while some larger employers are piloting wearables, the actual use among employers overall appears limited so far.

Primary stakeholders in the implementation process for wearables include insurance companies, agents, policyholders/employers (including risk managers and human resources personnel), employees, and wearables vendors that provide the technology and can partner with insurance companies and employers on proof-of-concept/pilot projects.

Can wearables be used to help prevent or reduce workplace injuries?

Wearable technology, as it relates to workers compensation, ranges from measuring an employee's physical activity, posture, or location to measuring multiple workplace conditions such as movement, light, humidity, temperature, and other environmental conditions. Some wearables can pair the data collected with third-party data—such as data about weather conditions—to provide a more complete picture of the working environment and associated risks.

According to NCCI data,1 the most common workplace lost-time claims are strains or injuries from lifting, pushing, or pulling, as well as falls, slips, and trips. The most commonly injured body parts are the lower back, knee, shoulder, and fingers, while the most severe injuries are to the head, brain, neck, and spine.

So, can wearables do anything to prevent or reduce the occurrence, risk, or severity of these most common lost-time workers compensation claims?

The stakeholders we interviewed said that wearable devices that measure the amount of weight lifted and the number of times an employee moves an item—movements often associated with the most common lost-time claims—are still in the proof-of-concept stage. But the technology is moving toward providing more real-time data, allowing for immediate feedback to workers and employers about a potentially hazardous condition or situation to help prevent injuries. For example, employees would feel a vibration if they are lifting in an unsafe manner and could correct the lift before an injury occurs.

The stakeholders noted that analyzing the data collected from wearable devices may also help prevent future injuries. Taking the lifting example, a dashboard analysis could show the number of lifts (whether safe or unsafe) an employee has completed, so that the employee can correct the unsafe movements going forward. Using data collected from wearables, employers may be able to predict hazardous situations and enhance accident prevention measures.

Over time, and with improving technologies, the reliability of the data is expected to increase so that ultimately, as one of our stakeholders noted, "wearables will be able to combine data and machine learning and apply predictive analytics to identify situations where injuries are more likely, so that employers and workers can take preemptive corrective action to reduce the risk of injury."

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Wearable technology Workers' compensation