Health risks requirements are often missing in wearable design
Connected worker wearable design is something extremely tough from an electronic, a cost, a software and a mechanical approach. That’s the reason why it’s so difficult to innovate and produce wearable.
BUT there are other constraints to take into account. One of them is highly critical: the health risks due to the wearable daily usage (and above all potential long-term cancers related to telecom wave exposure).
The risks related to EMF (Electro Magnetic Fields) close to sensitive body areas include cancer such as glioma (brain tumors). The risks for corporation are related to financial liabilities.
Customer acceptance is another story and is not part of this post even tough it largely explains why Google Smart Glasses is a failure (at least in its first release).
Examples of bad practices related to mobile phone usage
Let’s start with a first example. During the first years of unlimited data subscription plan, some young parents were monitoring their newborn status by putting a dedicated mobile phone just close to their head to watch for potential cries. There were a lot of articles and comments from medical staff to alert them about risks for their fragile newborn baby whose brain is not protected against full-time emitting device. In addition, telecom operators introduced 2 hrs cut-off limitation to make sure that people were not using unlimited data plan to monitor their children and/or their house.
Another old fashioned practice is the phone attached daily to a holster at the hip (used to be the norm). But I can observe that it is now less and less visible from the sales and worker staff. In the same way, I do not see people anymore standing with their cellphone during hours and hours to their ear.
SAR is now mandatory
As a clear sign of EMF (Electro Magnetic Fields) user worries, SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) is now mandatory for cellphones.
SAR is often source of criticism as it does not take into account low-intensity radiation impact over time as everyone agrees that EMF does not burn you as X-Ray or Nuclear radiations. SAR is mostly heating metric and the problem with wearables is the athermal effects.
Problem is not about the “how much?” but about the “how often?” and “where?”
What’s wrong with EMF ?
It’s definitely not about the power itself but more about the duration, meaning that you wear your wearable 8 hrs a day each week each year, and for some wearable it might be 24 hrs a day! That’s the problem.
In case your wearable does not emit 100% (for instance once every hour), the problem is obviously less critical even tough the device is close to your head.
Other body parts such as breast and genital areas call for extra care in wearable design.
World Health Organization classifies cellphone radiation as “possible human carcinogen”
A report from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which classifies cellphone radiation as a “possible human carcinogen” in category 2B – a category that also includes aloe leaves, gasoline, nickel and lead.
“The Working Group did not quantitate the risk; however, one study of past cell phone use (up to the year 2004), showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users (reported average: 30 minutes per day over a 10‐year period).”
“…it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands‐free devices or texting“.
There are hundreds if not thousands of current undergoing scientific publications and national studies. Some of them have been published but large scale and long term data are still missing.
Local and National Unions will (logically) say “no” to risky wearable in large industrial companies
In most of large companies, unions have extended power, in particular when worker health risks are at stake. It can be expected strong barriers for large deployment of worker wearable based on sensitive body area such as head, breast or close to genital areas.
Companies themselves are pushing for worker safety as a first priority
In addition to unions, companies whose “safety at work” is a priority will not take the risk of making compulsory to their worker wearable which can cause potential cancer. Nevertheless, to provision potential liabilities, some companies are making provisions in their financial statements.
The threatening scenario: it will cost billions in a few years as asbestos did !
Once upon a time, asbestos was heavily used until eventually we discovered with absolutely no doubt that asbestos was a deadly component. It seems pretty obvious that cellphones and/or other EMF could be the next asbestos case in the future.
There are some ongoing efforts to tackle this wearable health risks challenge, in particular from a standardisation view. For instance, IEC is starting a new Technical Committee related to wearable : TC 124, Wearable Electronic Devices and Technologies and Technologies.
At Intellinium, we have decided to design with a “health by design” and “health by default” principles similar to “Privacy By Design” / “Privacy By Default”.
After spending 6 months to study the best solution, we came up with the conclusion that the foot was a good candidate of our “worker hub” since it is far from head, breast and genital area. This hub located in (smart & connected) shoe could connect to other wearable but using a very lower and emitting protocol such as BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy).
In addition, we have not used “smart sole” that could make the telecom antennae too close to body but we have designed our product to be on top of the upper shoe (it gives more distance between body and electronic).
A third concrete example of our design was to adjust the power and the duration when emitting.