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

Standards groups have set a 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) heat limit for IT equipment that may be touched "continuously," such as laptops, but "those levels might no longer be applicable for something worn on skin," Fernando says. "So there is research going on in the international standards community" that is readdressing those standards with an eye toward wearable technology. The researchers are looking to address potential hazards that devices that meet existing heat limits could pose for human tissue, he adds. That might eventually mean establishing limits specifically for wearables.

When it comes to optical radiation, UL is specifically looking at the use of augmented-reality features in smart glasses. These devices broadcast images or video onto the interior of specially designed eyeglasses, so that a user sees the imagery in addition to whatever else is in her or his field of vision. In the workplace, these glasses are being used for things like broadcasting tutorials or providing other assistance to maintenance or assembly workers. For example, someone working on a subassembly for an airplane part can be guided through the process, through audio and visual instructions, without having to take his or her hands off the actual parts. The augmented-reality capabilities can also show what the part should look like when it's complete.

However, health and safety experts are wondering what long-term exposure to these augmented-reality glasses could mean for a user's optical health. Such research is in a very early stage, Fernando says, but "It could be important to evaluate that type of product with regard to the UV light that is being emitted."

My intent here is not to whip up a frenzy of fear, but rather to suggest taking the long view when it comes to technology adoption, and to know what issues researchers and regulators are considering with regard to workplace wearables. These are important considerations for both ends users and manufacturers of these devices. Future regulations could impact all stakeholders.

Fernando left me with these parting words: "A lot of startups will embark on a new idea without fully appreciating the hurdles they need to get through. So, unfortunately, if they don't think of those things and if they don't partner with organizations that have expertise [in testing and designing for compliance], then they might not succeed in their plans."

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of Internet of Things Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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