A Super Fitbit?
Mar 8, 2018

When does enhanced control potentially create new and novel risks? The 21st Century confronts us all with versions of this question regularly. Here's a case in point. Amazon has just patented a new type of wristband - a super fitbit, in effect - designed to "guide" fulfillment center employees to the right bins for both placing and picking. By buzzing or some similar signal, the wristband can tell the worker when they are reaching for the wrong bin and direct them to the right one. The movement-monitoring band has inch level accuracy and can run 24/7.

So far, that sounds pretty good (especially to members of Amazon Prime). Fewer mistakes, faster and better fulfillment of orders. But, there is a kicker: this technology will create a detailed profile of everything the wearer does while at work in the Amazon facility. Everything. Bathroom breaks, rest periods, lunch breaks, random pauses for any reason included.

But how might Amazon, or any other employer, elect to use the data? A recent article in The Chicago Tribune takes a look at some of the potential compliance risks.

[S]ome argue the technology could lead to discrimination. Even if the wristbands don't use GPS tracking, they could tell a company if a woman taking is longer bathroom breaks than co-workers or whether a disabled employee is moving more slowly, which could reflect negatively on their job performance, said Paula Brantner, senior adviser at employee rights organization Workplace Fairness.

How might "employee evaluation by wristband" run into compliance problems with ADA/ADAA and other employee rights regulations? While robots do not have rights, people do. Attempts to turn employees into robots made of meat through data-driven micro-management may be a risky proposition. While this risk management question conceptually applies to all "wearable" technology, this new wristband tech may push the issue from a footnote into the headlines. Stay tuned.

The Wellness Debates - Should You Be Concerned?

If you're like most risk professionals, you regard employee wellness programs as something that happen "over there" in the mysterious Land of HR. Yet you also know that some of the major cost drivers in your workers' comp program are the chronic illnesses and generally poor health conditions like obesity, diabetes, COPD, and various cardio-vascular issues that plague more and more of your aging employees. These co-morbid conditions can help to drive claim costs through the roof and make RTW complicated or even impossible. So - you may actually have a dog, even a big dog, involved in the fight documented in a recent volume of Health Matrix - The Journal of Law-Medicine. See also the quick, hard hitting summary here.

In a major article, "The Outcomes, Economics and Ethics of the Workplace Wellness Industry", author Al Lewis takes a look at what works - and what doesn't - in workplace wellness. This debate has been going on for years and some of Lewis's article gets into extremely "inside baseball" issues concerning whose numbers are better or, in some cases, not completely phony. But the core of the question is simple. We know that the American workforce faces growing health challenges that impinge on productivity, absence, and RTW in very meaningful ways. The question of which wellness programs actually work is not trivial and not a concern only of HR policy wonks.

Recent research by The National Bureau of Economic Research shows - in contradiction to an earlier Harvard study - that wellness programs seldom have a positive ROI for the employer. Other research and surveys have revealed that a majority of employees resent the imposition of penalties for non-participation in wellness programs and health screenings. Mr. Lewis shows in pitiless detail how even the research reported by wellness companies themselves demonstrates limited or no impact on employee health as measured by health care and disability costs.

Mr. Lewis's detailed review of the state of employee wellness is bad news for risk programs struggling with soaring medical and indemnity costs due to obesity and other co-morbids. We should note that not all chronic disease management services or Employee Assistance Programs are not worth their costs. Some do appear to provide real benefits, but corporate buyers need to do their homework carefully. Of course, as a risk manager, you are an old hand at separating what works from brightly packaged programs that don't. Don't give up on the idea of wellness, but work with your friends across the hall in HR to find those offerings that bring real benefits - benefits that you can see in better RTW outcomes, for example.

Sitting? Standing? What is Your Desk Doing to You?   

Sitting is the new smoking, we've been told. Some employers have been investing in standing or variable height desks to alleviate the well documented health problems associated with too much time sitting in front of a computer. Now we have a new study from Curtin University in Australia which tells us that too much standing at a stand up desk will "increase pain and reduce mental functioning." Now what?

The study in question was small (20 adult subjects) and the conclusions are tentative. The report in the journal Ergonomics says, "...prolonged standing may have health and productivity impacts, which this study assessed. The observed changes suggest replacing work sitting with standing should be done with caution."

Other studies, including a 2015 report from the University of Chester in the UK, set a goal of standing for two hours out of the standard work day. The Curtain University research had subjects stand for two hours at a time, at which point most reported various aches and pains from being on their feet. Perhaps the best summary of the information thus far comes from David Hall, occupational health chair at the Australian Physiotherapy Association: "The challenge in any workplace is to try and allow people to have a natural flow between sitting, standing and moving. What we know is you shouldn't sit for longer than 30 minutes at a time, but similarly different types of issues start to kick in after standing for a long period."

Got that? Perhaps rampant common sense is all that's called for. The human body likes to be in motion - walking, sitting, standing. The modern office chair was invented in the 1860s and popularized by the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismark, in Imperial Germany, thus beginning the Heroic Age of Sitting. But modern homo sapiens have been free range for at least 200,000 years. How can you collaborate to design offices and work routines that help keep your people healthy and in motion - and off disability?

Another Step Forward for Autonomous Cars

Come early April, developers will be free to test driverless cars on any and all public roads in California. "This is a major step forward for autonomous technology in California," DMV Director Jean Shiomoto said in a press statement. "Safety is our top concern and we are ready to begin working with manufacturers that are prepared to test fully driverless vehicles in California." For the full story, check out the Sacramento Bee article.

Some fifty companies have indicated that they will be applying for testing permits. Several other states are also moving ahead on licensing driverless car testing, but California is the Big Enchilada. Until now, a car with autonomous technology aboard in California was required to have a human driver ready to take over if needed. The new regime takes us a big step closer to real word, every day autonomous vehicles - and the new risks and opportunities they present for fleet and risk managers everywhere. Driverless vehicles don't have to be perfect to earn a place on our roads. They only have to be better than that sleep-deprived, easily distracted, just had an argument with his spouse homo sapiens driving the eighteen wheeler edging up on your rear bumper. How hard can that be?


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