Climate Change

As summers get hotter, workers are strapping on wearable thermometers

In this sci-fi-like solution to rising heat, employers measure their workers’ body temperature.
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5 min read

Here’s a modern tragedy for you: Some of the workers battling the climate crisis are also at risk of suffering its ill effects, Pat Devero, VP of national safety at McCarthy Building Companies, told HR Brew. He said McCarthy’s renewable-energy projects, including installing solar panels, are some of the riskiest for heat-related illness.

Solar-panel installations, he explained, are traditionally done in states that are prone to high light and heat—in a heat wave last week, temperatures reached the low 100s in parts of the South and in California, Arizona, and Nevada. Construction sites tend to have little natural shade and the panels themselves “radiate heat,” said Devero. Conditions can be worrisome, given that heat exposure is one of the top-three causes of occupational death in the US, killing an estimated 600 to 2,000 workers annually.

To keep employees safe, McCarthy has joined a growing number of employers, including a brewing company and the Department of Homeland Security, in adopting solutions seemingly ripped from the pages of a sci-fi comic: Small, wearable tech that’s strapped to employees’ arms or chests and tracks their “core body temperature.” The devices, made by companies such as Kenzen and StrongArm Technologies, send workers and shift supervisors warnings when a worker exceeds their heat threshold. Kenzen’s and StrongArm Technologies’ respective CEOs, Heidi Lehmann and Sean Petterson, told HR Brew that the data can be used to guide adjustments to employees’ schedules and number of rest and water breaks per shift.

How it works. Emily Whitcomb, director of the Work to Zero initiative at the National Safety Council, a program dedicated to using technology to eliminate workplace fatalities, called wearables “very effective at keeping workers safe on the job.” She explained two approaches to heat monitoring: Take the temperature of the work environment or read the individual’s core body temperature.

Since heat can vary wildly based on a worker’s specific location on a job site—think about the temperature swings an employee might experience carrying goods from a trailer parked outside in July to an industrial freezer—wearables measure the temperature of the internal organs. Even in the same location, Lehmann and Whitcomb said different employees’ responses to heat may vary based on factors like gender, age, and the amount of personal protective equipment they’re wearing.

At McCarthy, Devero said 10 employees per shift wear Kenzen’s wearables on their arms. As Lehmann explained, employees check out the devices and pair them via Bluetooth with their personal cell phones. If they are “calibrating in a dangerous direction,” their phone vibrates and they receive a notification to stop working.

“They get that the vibration, [and] it means stop, seek shade, hydrate, rest,” Lehmann said. “Then they’ll get another alert when their physiological variables have returned to normal, and they’re ready to get back on the worksite.”

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Image of heat warning on Kenzen device.

Courtesy of Kenzen.

The safety supervisor and corporate environmental health-and-safety officer also receive notifications when workers ignore safety alerts. Lehmann said this might happen if workers have a “band-of-brothers mentality” and don’t want to stop working or leave their shift partners.

HR Brew asked Whitcomb whether workers' reluctance to stop might be due to concerns about productivity. She didn’t think so.

“If the workplace is using a device like this, then they have a culture where they appreciate safety and where they recognize risks and want to mitigate that risk,” Whitcomb said. “So, for a workplace that’s using this type of technology, I’m assuming the workers understand that they are able to take breaks when needed, so that they can get the job done safely.”

Know before you go. Lehmann said she chose to create a heat-risk workplace solution because she sees the threat posed by heat as growing year over year and being “100% preventable.” In recent years, she said, all her business has been inbound.

As the climate crisis accelerates, creating “strange things” like heat waves in February, she sees her business expanding beyond the high-risk industries she currently operates in, such as construction, mining, and metallurgy.

Whitcomb agreed that interest is likely to grow, adding that as personal comfort with biometric trackers, such as Fitbits and Apple Watches, becomes more widespread, workers may be more likely to accept tracking at work as part of safety precautions. But employers shouldn’t just assume their workers are onboard with biometric data collection, and some states, like Illinois, have passed worker-friendly biometric privacy laws.

There’s an additional caveat: Excitement for a technology doesn’t equate with implementation readiness.

Devero, for example, said he loved hearing that McCarthy’s workers appreciated the technology, but because Kenzen relies on Bluetooth, teams in remote areas have struggled with dead zones. Whitcomb said that HR should anticipate similar issues and meet with IT and other stakeholders to discuss tech challenges before they invest.

“They make the capital purchase, and then they come back and…[IT says] ‘Well, we don’t have bandwidth for this or we don’t have the infrastructure or Bluetooth can’t work down in the bottom of the mine.’” Whitcomb said. “If companies are looking at adopting technology solutions…meet with stakeholders from top to bottom…to talk about some of those early steps.”—SV

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.