North Star BlueScope Steel, a steel producer for global building and construction industries, today announced that it is applying IBM Watson Internet of Things (IoT) technology and wearable devices to pioneer novel approaches to help protect workers in extreme environments. The IBM Employee Wellness and Safety Solution, a research project that analyses data collected from sensors in workers’ wearables, provides data to North Star management in real time when the technology senses potentially problematic conditions.

Employees working in extreme environments face a daily risk from conditions that include everything from high heat and toxic gas to open flames and heavy machinery accidents. Overexertion and falls account for more than $25 billion in U.S. workers’ compensation costs a year, according to the Liberty Mutual Research Institute 2014 Workplace Safety Index, yet there is currently no practical way to verify that mandatory safety controls and personal protective equipment are being used in hazardous environments. In fact, nearly 3 million nonfatal occupational injuries were recorded in 2014.

"Our global economy relies on hundreds of millions of workers who do their jobs under extreme environmental conditions, and now we are exploring ways to apply the Internet of Things and cognitive computing to help organizations prevent accidents and to keep their employees safer," said Harriet Green, general manager, IBM Watson IoT, Commerce and Education." We use the IoT to gather, integrate and analyse sensor data from wearable devices. When coupled together with innovative cognitive capabilities and data from important external sources such as the environment and weather, it creates enormous potential for better managing health, wellness and safety to truly help transform the way these vital workers perform their jobs."

Wearable sensors such as fitness bracelets are already available, but the cognitive solution conceived by IBM researchers in Haifa, Israel, offers a platform that is customizable and extends the power of cognitive computing to a group of many sensors, not just one. The ability to integrate data from multiple sensors means that the solution can do much more sophisticated analyses to help organisations identify problematic situations. For example, an organisation could receive data on a combination of skin temperature, raised heart rate, and no movement for several minutes, which could indicate potentially fatal heat stress while any of these signals on its own might not seem serious.

“Many of these injuries can be prevented, whether by ensuring that protective equipment is used correctly, or that time or location limitations for hazardous situations are monitored,” explained Gabi Zodik, director, IoT and Mobile Platforms, IBM Research. “Our vision for smart worker safety involves integrating and presenting contextual information to management from a wide variety of sensors. It’s a method that is non-intrusive, is hands-free, always-on, environment-aware, and offers the direct delivery of critical information to those who need it, when they need it.”

Under this research project, North Star is piloting the IBM Employee Wellness and Safety Solution to identify potentially problematic conditions by collecting data from various sensors that continuously monitor the worker’s body skin temperature, heart rate, galvanic skin response and level of activity, correlated with sensor data for ambient temperature and humidity. The solution then alerts North Star management so they can provide personalised safety guidelines to each employee. The same technology can be used to collect data on excessive exposure to different temperatures, radiation levels, noise or toxic gases, using sensor tags for temperature, humidity, noise, or light measurements. Gases can be detected using personal sensors enabled via Wifi or Bluetooth low energy sensors.

“Through the testing of the IBM Employee Wellness and Safety Solution, we have observed an increased awareness of heat stress and exertion in our trial users,” said Malcolm Edge, I.T. Director, North Star BlueScope Steel. “The solution has provided a proof of concept showcasing how data can flow from the user to the IBM Watson IoT Platform and back to a supervisor for intervention. This solution, once fully developed, will provide a solid foundation for increasing worker safety by providing real-time monitoring of the environment around the worker.”