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Fatigue monitoring technology preventing workplace injuries

With a variety of wearable safety technologies becoming more common in construction, we take a look at a Deakin University fatigue monitoring project that is developing an easy-to-wear solution to help prevent workplace injuries

With worker safety a major concern for an industry that continues to see a high risk of workplace injuries and fatalities, researching ways in which technology can mitigate risk is attracting increasing interest.

A 2023 Deloitte report found that 34 per cent of construction and engineering businesses from across Australia, Japan and Singapore are currently employing wearable technologies to help make workers more aware and protect them from health and safety risks on site.

One wearable tech project currently underway in Australia is being conducted by Deakin University’s Workforce Safety and Performance Research and Innovation (WSPRI) group, which is pioneering the use of a next generation wearable sensor to prevent fatigue amongst construction workers and machinery operators.

The multidisciplinary group of researchers was established in 2020 with the aim of improving injury prevention by developing new technologies for hazardous industries such as construction, mining and forestry.

Combining four Deakin University schools (architecture and built environment, information technology, psychology, and exercise and nutrition science), the group has been able to provide complementary expertise required for the delivery of their complex multidisciplinary projects.

“When we look at statistics, we believe that there haven’t been any improvements in terms of injury or fatality prevention in the last 10 years,” WSPRI co-director associate professor Farnad Nasirzadeh says.

“Initially, we used the sensors to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 as this was a very significant risk for the construction sector at the time.”

An example of a wearable sensor ring, which was used to detect COVID-19 symptoms in a 2020 trial. Image: Deakin University

As an alternative to manually checking workers’ temperature to isolate COVID-19 infections, WSPRI conducted a trial backed by construction unions and Australian workers’ entitlement scheme Incolink where staff wore wearable devices such as vests, earpieces, rings and underarm sensors. These were connected to a live monitoring system, which triggered an alert if a high temperature was detected – reducing the risk of COVID-19 spreading through a job site.

“We used the sensors for temperature screening and the project was very successful, attracting high attention at the national level,” Nasirzadeh says.

Next step

These wearable sensors provided accurate information and peace of mind for workers when wearing them over an extended period of the time, WSPRI group co-director Tony Arnel says.

Since then, WSPRI has looked at using its wearable sensors to manage a wide range of risks for workers such as fatigue, heat stress and musculoskeletal disorders.

The wearable sensors have been found to accurately monitor fatigue by tracking an individual’s heart rate, brain signals and eye movements – reducing the risk of injury.

“One of the most significant risks in earthmoving and excavation operations is fatigue – especially mental fatigue,” Nasirzadeh says.

“In one of our recent projects, we used headbands to measure brain signals and dashboard mounted cameras to monitor facial parameters of operators. Then, we measure the level of fatigue objectively using the brain signals and facial parameters.

“We believe we have been pioneers in construction in terms of covering a very wide range of safety risks.”

Nasirzadeh believes the trial conducted in 2020 was the first project in the building sector where wearable devices were used with the support of unions.

“This technology is still in its earliest stages, but I think in the near future we will see a significant increase in the adoption of this technology in the sector,” he says.

“There is no other solution when you see the statistics on injury prevention. This means we need new safety innovation.”

For more information on the WSPRI group and its wearable sensors, visit: wspri.deakin.edu.au

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