OHS benefits of motion sensors and contemporary anthropometry

Several years ago, at a workshop over the development of the next Australian National Strategy for occupational health and safety (OHS), participants were asked to forecast an issue that would appear or be useful in the next decade.  I suggested sub-dermal implants that would record or transmit real-time health data.  My suggestion was received with laughter and a little bit of horror.

The sub-dermal implants for OHS monitoring are yet to occur but the electronic collation of important health data has progressed to a high level of relevance. This not only involves measuring body stresses but the bodies themselves.

Motion Sensor Biofeedback

One Australian company, dorsaVi has been gaining international attention through its Vi-Safe system.  According to a November 2015 media release about its new relationship with Monash Health, dorsaVi stated that ViSafe, and the related ViMove technology

“…monitors and assesses movement and muscle activity, helping workers optimise their physical work to prevent injury. ViSafe™ monitors workers to provide an assessment of the movement of their lower back, shoulder elevation and relevant muscle activity.”

Wearable sensors provide a terrific method for identifying physical stresses (implants would probably have worked also). The sensors allow for extremes to be identified and for measures to be introduced that reduce those extremes.  One research study that used ViSafe, and was partly funded by dorsaVi, found

“This cluster-randomised pilot clinical trial found evidence that changing patterns of lumbo-pelvic movement and/or posture using motion-sensor biofeedback in people with low back pain leads to reduced pain and activity limitation, when compared with guidelines-based medical or physiotherapy care and placebo.”

One needs to be careful not to overstate the significance of technology like ViSafe in solving workplace safety hazards.  Such motion-sensor biofeedback tools only provide information, albeit perhaps better than was available previously.  Professionals are still required to interpret and apply the information in a harm reduction plan.  The dorsaVi Annual Report for 2014 includes some case studies that confirm the vital role of health professionals in harm reduction.

There is also the temptation to focus on the individual rather than the organisational.  dorsaVi seems well aware of this risk as it says, about its commercial arrangement with Monash Health and Allianz insurance,

“A further project was initiated at the beginning of 2015 to source and test a range of engineered solutions aimed at assisting workers involved in various manual handling tasks and reducing the potential injury for the work areas assessed.”

The focus on engineering solutions implies that this project is concerned with higher order hazard controls, as it should be.

The usefulness of this type of motion-sensor technology seems obvious at the individual or workplace level but there is a larger and more significant change coming in anthropometrics that is likely to have impacts beyond the workplace.

Australian Anthropometric Database

A major reference point for the measurement of humans in the world is the database established by the World Engineering Anthropometry Resource, a database that has only existed since 2009 and has been developed by concerned ergonomists, primarily.  The relevance of measuring people is everywhere when one begins to think about the changing shape and size of humans in different regions, different social classes, different economies and all of this over time.  A recent example of the practical issues of changing body sizes and shapes is the matter of the dimensions of aeroplane seats.

Business operators have an obligation to accommodate the variety of body shapes and sizes so that workers can remain productive, safe and healthy.

Cover of SizingUpAustralia-HowContemporaryIsTheAnthropometricDataAustralianDesignersUse_2009_PDFThe occupational issues were acknowledged by Safe Work Australia (SWA) with its January 2009 publication – “Sizing Up Australia: How contemporary is the anthropometric data Australian designers use?” SWA intended the

“research is to assist designers in providing design solutions to aid in prevention of work-related illness and injury and contribute to improved health and safety at work.”

If safety is most effective when it is integrated into the design of objects, plant and buildings, the anthropometry of the user is essential but the 2009 research found that

“… that some anthropometric data targeted at working populations in Australia are proprietary or commercial-in-confidence. Of the publicly available data much is out-of-date or of military origin, not civilian population-based, and thus it is of limited value when applied to civilian populations. Some Australian Standards contain anthropometric data, but this is out of date and therefore unreliable. There are international data available but they are not necessarily relevant to the Australian population. In general, there is a paucity of good quality, reliable anthropometric data on the Australian working population that is available to designers of Australian workplaces and products used in Australian workplaces.” (pages vii – viii)

Other researchers writing about anthropometry have pointed out the serious risks presented by outdated data.  Stephen Ward quoted a 1994 handbook published by Standards Australia stating

“… direct dependence on overseas anthropometric data can be misleading to the designer because of Australia’s cosmopolitan population”.

So the risk of outdated data has not only been an issue for this century.

The Australian SWA research anticipated the application of 3D scanners, saying

“…. problems would be avoided by having the correct information to hand during the design and testing phase to enable good design solutions to be prepared in the first place. This can only happen with an up-to-date, relevant, Australian anthropometric database that includes 3D body scans. The database needs to be available at low cost because the design and testing phases are still expensive and it needs to be available so that designers can verify and fine tune their designs. These data are an investment in the future. They will enable Australian designers to produce their work using a scientifically reliable base for safer, better designed workplaces and products for all Australians.” (page ix)

Some readers of this blog are sure to know a lot more about 3D scanning and anthropometry.  As an OHS professional I have not needed to know anything about anthropometry unless there was a mismatch between worker and equipment which may generate a hazard.  However it is reassuring that the alchemy of ergonomics is already on top of this informational gap and is doing something, on a global scale!, about the issue.

Both issues in this article involve the use of new technology to provide data from which better OHS decisions can be made. If only the OHS professions become aware of it.  State of knowledge, just sayin’.

Kevin Jones


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