November 7 (UPI) — Wal-Mart and other companies are testing a workplace safety monitoring device made by start-up StrongArm, according to foreign media reports. The black device, which is as big as a smartphone and can be worn on a shoulder strap, tracks every muscle movement of employees, alerting them to an increased risk of injury when they perform dangerous operations, such as bending too deep to hold the box.
Geodis, who is experimenting with StrongArm devices in its own warehouse, says the tracker complements existing security programs by identifying employees who need additional guidance, while also helping them identify areas in their operations that need to be redesigned to reduce the risk of injury.
Unions and researchers who study workplace monitoring worry that for whatever reason, employers who start collecting employee data won’t be able to resist using it against them. Productivity tracking has become widely used throughout the industry, and employees may be fired or punished if their performance declines. Given the opacity of data analysis tools, it is difficult for employees to figure out how much information employers can see.
StrongArm says it has about 30 customers, including Heineken NV and Toyota Motor Corp., and it is also working with insurers that want to reduce employee compensation costs. Wal-Mart says it is testing StrongArm devices at eight distribution centers, but does not plan to use them in stores. StrongArm says about 15,000 employees wear its devices, most of whom are on a daily basis. It expects its daily active users to reach 35,000 by the end of next year.
StrongArm acknowledges that its products raise concerns about workplace monitoring, but says its products are designed to improve safety. It cites a recent study commissioned by it that found that the risk of injury for users who wear their products fell by 20 to 50 per cent. It states that it does not track individual productivity and that its products are not used to punish individual workers or to object to workerclaims.
But ergonomic tracking does not occur in isolation. Geodis also uses productivity tracking software produced by another company and otherwise collects its operational data. ‘One day, the company will be able to consolidate all this data into a single system that improves security and operational efficiency,’ said Mike Honious, chief operating officer of Geodis Americas.
In the view of StrongArm’s founder, Sean Peterson, most employers have made less-than-ideal safety decisions because they lack understanding what is actually happening in warehouses and factories. Managers can only correct problems they actually see when they do field visits, and employees tend to stand up when they see their boss. Peterson believes that a comprehensive analysis of each person’s physical activity will provide the basis for more reasonable safety measures.
On a customer’s site, Mr. Peterson recalls, StrongArm noticed a place in the warehouse where workers often overwrigged their backs. The action is at risk of serious injury. Employees there stand next to the conveyor belt, look at certain items, and then send them to a set of rollers that intersect the conveyor belt at a 90-degree angle. StrongArm suggested that the company change it to a 45-degree angle and rotate it into a power conveyor so that workers don’t have to push boxes themselves. That problematic action immediately disappeared.
StrongArm says most of its customers are already collecting productivity data through other products, so the technology used should not raise new concerns about surveillance.
Traditionally, unions have examined the use of surveillance technology. But now that data collection activities have increased, coupled with a decrease in collective bargaining, the power landscape in the workplace has changed. StrongArm says it operates with union workers at some factories. Peterson declined to give their names, but said the union had been supporting them.
Sometimes employers who use StrongArm products take steps to address privacy concerns themselves.
StrongArm’s current model gives customers a lot of freedom, with device-generated data. But Mr Peterson said he would oppose the use of his technology to punish employees and, if that happened, would consider restricting customers’ access to data.