Why wearable technology is becoming critical for key workers

Words: Shachar Harari, Chief Business Officer & Head of Cardo Crew

Wearable technology has been gaining steady traction for a decade or more, from biometric smartwatches and Bluetooth headsets, right through to experimental augmented reality products like Google Glass. While progress in the field has been slow and steady, there’s something about 2020 that has put wearable technology under the spotlight.

Suddenly, we’re living in a world where minimising physical contact is not just a convenient luxury, but a necessity. It’s like every new iteration of wearable tech has been a trial run for a global pandemic, and now the advantages to workers are becoming readily apparent.

When COVID-19 prompted the first national lockdown in March 2020, there was no blueprint for how to manage the crisis. Workplaces had to adapt. Some were forced to close, supported – at least in part – by the Government. Whereas other workplaces were able to remain open as essential services. A year ago, the terms COVID-secure and social distancing meant nothing to us. Now, they’re the cornerstone on which these key services operate, and one of the components that makes this possible is wearable tech.

The ability to communicate in a hands-free, contactless way has always been a crucial factor, but today it’s arguably the crucial factor. Key workers, in particular, need to find new ways of communicating critical information with one another with the absolute minimum level of physical contact. That means traditional button-press intercom systems and shared walkie-talkies are now practically unsafe. It’s simply not practical for a firefighter or paramedic to have to constantly handle multiple surfaces in order to communicate, all while adhering to the strict use of PPE (personal protective equipment) to avoid cross-contamination. This conundrum has accelerated the adoption of so-called ‘smart PPE’, and it’s just what emergency services and other essential workplaces need to stay COVID-secure without compromising on their most vital skill – communication.

The idea behind Smart PPE is a simple one, but it represents one of the most effective applications of wearable technology to date. If a worker is required to wear a visor, helmet or a pair of safety goggles for a several-hour shift, surely it makes sense to maximise that ‘real estate’ and fit it with communication-enabling technology. As we hurtle at breakneck speed toward a so-called ‘new normal’, that’s precisely what’s starting to happen.

We’ve all probably used Bluetooth headsets for communication at some point in our lives. The technology is ubiquitous and heavy relied on, but it’s not without its flaws. For one, Bluetooth has an incredibly limited range, often spanning less than 100m. It’s also incredibly volatile, particularly when there are many devices in use with walls and objects littering the environment. What’s worse, Bluetooth usually has an impractical limit of only 2-4 individuals at a time, making it less viable for large, busy workplaces. All of this makes Bluetooth impractical in places like hospitals, which can be vast buildings, where instant and dependable communication is vital. Some institutions have gotten around this by ‘daisy-chaining’ intercom systems together in order to cover a wider area, but this often leads to errors and literal communication breakdowns.

“It’s easy to see how wireless mesh networking could completely transform a working day for the average emergency responder.”

What has made wearable comms viable for workers in a post-COVID landscape is something called wireless mesh networking. In a short space of time, wireless mesh technology has elevated PPE to a whole new level, dramatically increasing its value and usefulness. Existing PPE items, such as overalls, helmets, and visors, can easily be fitted with the technology, making hands-free communication possible between individuals up to a mile apart, up to a total radius of five miles. There’s no ‘base station’ needed, and the wireless mesh network is entirely self-sufficient, meaning it goes where workers go. It’s easy to see how this could completely transform a working day for the average emergency responder, who could stay in regular close contact with their team without having to consider sanitisation or surface contact. It’s just one aspect of wearable technology that is likely to feature in our lives as we adapt to life after the pandemic. Telehealth will also become more prevalent, with wearable heart rate and blood pressure monitors, but communication is certainly the first form of wearable tech to be so rapidly accelerated in response to the virus.

With the prospect of various vaccines now firmly on the horizon, it’s possible to envisage a world a year or two from now where we don’t have to socially distance. Nevertheless, the lessons learned throughout the pandemic around the application of wearable, hands-free communication technology are likely to stay with the industry for many years to come. Even beyond social distancing, the advantages to frictionless, wearable communication are virtually endless.