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ISU researcher: Sensors will reduce workplace injuries but need ethics safeguards

In this Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, photo, an Amazon employee makes sure a box riding on a belt is not sticking out at the Amazon Fulfillment center in Robbinsville Township, N.J.

NORMAL — Illinois State University is studying data on whether wearable tracking devices could reduce workplace injuries. Sensors that workers wear around their waist can detect strained movement of the back and neck or repetitive motions that can lead to injury.

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James Jones, executive director of ISU’s Katie School of Insurance and Risk Management, said the data is intended mostly for warehouse work for major employers including Amazon and Walmart. But he said the technology will likely be useful in other industries, including office work where injuries such as carpel tunnel syndrome could be more prevalent.

James Jones
ISU professor James Jones. Provided

“This is something that in my estimation will be applied in the not-so-distant future across many, many different functions,” Jones said in an interview on WGLT’s Sound Ideas.

Jones said the sensors, about the size of pill case, can provide real-time feedback, even buzzing when the wearer’s form and alignment are incorrect when they move forward, backward or twist and turn.

Jones said employers can also use the data to link certain tasks and movements to the prevalence of certain injuries. He said that will help employers take preventive steps to limit their liability risk from workers compensation.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded 300,000 workplace injuries in 2020 related to back, neck and shoulder pain and similar musculoskeletal injuries.

Ethics concerns

Jones acknowledged the technology could cause concern for employees if it’s used to monitor their every move at work in the hope of attaining maximum productivity.

“I think every data collection has the potential to be misused,” Jones said. “It really is up to the employers and potentially the regulators if it is misused.”

Jones said employers will need to have strong ethics rules to help ensure the data is not used improperly. He likened the technology to tracking devices that car insurance companies use to monitor driving habits.

ISU received a $30,000 grant from the MEMIC Group, a Maine-based firm that specializes in workers’ compensation insurance.

Jones said the university expects to deliver its final report at the end of 2024.

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