Do Workplace Wearables Pose Health Hazards?

Smart glasses and other devices could be a boon for productivity, but now is the best time to start investigating potential impacts from their long-term use.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 27, 2015

We all know someone who, after years or even months of performing a repetitive task, has developed carpal tunnel syndrome or some other type of repetitive stress injury. Back in 2004, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that repetitive motions, including grasping tools, scanning groceries, and typing, were the leading cause of lost workdays in 2002. A 1996 report from the U.S. Department of Labor (oddly, the most recent data I could find) clocked the overall annual costs (direct and indirect) to employers due to their workers' repetitive stress injuries at $100 billion.

Most employers these days are very cognizant of the toll that repetitive stress injuries take on their workforce and on their bottom line, and ergonomic consultants provide design help to assist employees in correcting or avoiding these types of injuries. But as a growing number of workers begin to use smartphones and other mobile devices in the workplace, there is some evidence indicating that their use is leading to a rise in complaints of neck, wrist and shoulder pain.

So, looking beyond that, what about the new range of workplace wearables, such as smart glasses, smart watches, activity monitors and the like? Might they lead to a new set of workplace wellness concerns? That is not a question I had entertained before speaking with Anura Fernando, a principal engineer at Underwriters Laboratories (UL). But it makes sense that UL is investigating the potential impacts of wearable technology, given its deep background in workplace safety issues.

In the workplace, Fernando says, "wearables are a relatively new phenomenon," which is all the more reason UL wants to get ahead of any potential health and safety issues facing workers who are beginning to use wearable technologies. "In an enterprise setting," he explains, "we're looking at wearing these devices for eight-hour shifts, so it's important to consider day-to-day, long-term use."

Thus far, two broad areas that UL has considered are heat and optical emissions from these devices. Heat is something designers of electronics have been trying to manage since Hewlett and Packard set up shop in a garage, of course, but it could take on new significance when the electronics are strapped to a wrist or worn on a head for eight or more consecutive hours. The initial heat-emissions standards created by groups such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) were not written for those types of use cases, Fernando told me.

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