People want information about their own health and fitness. Many are turning to wearable technology and activity trackers for that information, but information requires decisions or actions to gain benefit. The limitations of activity tracking and decisions was reinforced recently with some US research in the area.
The University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s Department of Health and Physical Activity has published research that has found that wearable technology, like Fitbit and others, “…are ineffective at sustaining weight loss”. This finding is the one that is attracting headlines online because a lot of people want to lose weight and the weight loss industry is large and pervasive. However in terms of occupational health and safety (OHS), there is a more relevant quote in the University’s media release on the study:
“…researchers concluded that devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity do not offer an advantage over standard weight loss approaches that include behavioral counseling on physical activity and diet. Thus, while these devices allow for ease of tracking of physical activity along with feedback and encouragement, they may not enhance adherence to the tenets of a healthy lifestyle, which is the most important aspect of any weight loss regiment.” (emphasis added)
It seems that the reliance on the activity tracker is insufficient to turn thought into action – awareness but no change.
The research also reiterates some findings from 2014 by Endeavor Partners under a chapter called “The Dirty Secret of Wearables” which provides a different but perhaps more accurate perspective on activity trackers:
“In the midst of this frenzy of anticipation, the dirty secret of wearables remains: most of these devices fail to drive long-term sustained engagement for a majority of users. Endeavour Partners’ research reveals that more than half of U.S. consumers who have owned a modern activity tracker no longer use it. A third of U.S. consumers who have owned one stopped using the device within six months of receiving it.” (page 4)
The study reinforces the importance of human interaction and engagement over a technological interaction. The media statement says:
“Over the course of the subsequent 18 months, both groups showed significant improvements in body composition, fitness, physical activity, and diet, with no significant difference between groups. However, those who received health counseling throughout the study lost nearly twice as much weight as those who used wearable devices for three-quarters of it.”
This is another research finding that shows that a combination of human and technological engagement is more effective than reliance on technology and is important when one notes the tendency to develop an app for workplace and health solutions that tries to codify interactions rather than valuing the existing available human interaction.
It also reinforces that technology needs context or else new (and expensive) wearable technology becomes little different from the pedometers of several years ago that became so ubiquitous that they were being given away in cereal packets.
There is no doubt that wearable technology provides important health information about the wearer. Regardless of the commercial technology available in electronics retailers, there is wearable technology that helps OHS professionals in identifying physical hazard controls. These are usually applied as part of a study of manual handling stressors on the body and can provide excellent levels of detail on body stress. New devices are also coming to market for fatigue monitoring and some readers may have heard about various sensors included in hard hats or football helmets.
But this is all simply data. It needs interpretation in order to identify safety improvement or safety as far as is reasonably practicable. OHS professionals need to know of wearable technology that relates to their own industry or work activities. The ability to collect measurably physical data makes for better decisions. However much of the technology is recent and some is being promoted at prototype stages in search of ongoing development funding; so the OHS professional and business owner needs to have sharp bullshit detectors.
Business owners need to accept the limitation of these devices – that they provide data which still requires interpretation. And this interpretation needs to be tailored to the work tasks being examined and the workplace environment in which the tasks occur. The wearable technology provides additional data for the workplace state of OHS knowledge and that knowledge may be new and better than previously available but it still requires the employer or business owner to make a decision on how to apply that knowledge. The OHS process remains the same but from a better base of information, hopefully one that makes the practicable decisions easier. It is important to remember that gathering data is not a decision.