At U.K. supermarket chain Tesco, workers wear sensor-bearing armbands to track inventory while unloading goods. "Pickers" that put together orders at Amazon.com warehouses wear GPS tags designed to guide them on the most efficient warehouse route. All of these wearable devices are designed to monitor worker productivity, combining man and machine for maximum efficiency. (Amazon's chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
Wearables have been long used to help monitor an individual's health and fitness. But now wearable use is becoming increasingly common in the workplace to record, analyze and enhance worker productivity, raising concerns among lawyers and labor specialists who feel that it's a step toward stripping employees of workplace rights.
"It's one thing to think about ways that workers can navigate the wearables to be more efficient. But what does this mean about the employee and employer relationship that they need to be so closely monitored?" asked Elise Gould, a labor economist at Economic Policy Institute. "What does it say about the sense of trust or respect?"
The worldwide wearable market has shot up in recent years, with sales increasing 67 percent in 2016 alone. And the workplace is poised to become a prime place for wearable use. A recent study by customer management software company Salesforce showed that 86 percent of U.S. companies plan to invest more in wearable applications on the job over the course of 2016, with 40 percent interested in using wearables to monitor employee time management and real-time employee communication.
The Daqri helmet, used by companies like the California-based Hyperloop, has allowed workers to see GPS-guided blueprints via augmented reality vision in real time, allowing workers to spot welds without needing to go through extensive training. And a Hitachi Business Microscope affixed to a lanyard monitors how and when office workers interact with others, which can lead management to better understand how frequently different departments interact, though the company offers no examples of where the gadget is actually used.
There are also productivity and tangible safety benefits as well, according to a study. Workers who integrate this technology are 8.5 percent more productive and 3.5 percent more satisfied, a Rackspace study found. And for management, worker data can offer insight into human labor. Such data can help managers establish productivity metrics and goals and help workers achieve bonuses and promotions based on merit. And these devices could promote employee well-being — truck drivers outfitted with "SmartCap" devices that lower the risk of falling asleep on the road are adding to both their productive output and their physical safety.
While some companies and employees see some benefits to wearables at work, some labor lawyers suggest that people should be wary of unintended legal consequences. Lawyer Avi Kumin expressed concern for employees who might not be hitting productivity standards due to a medical condition or disability. Managers prohibited from giving employees medical examinations are at risk for lawsuits simply because they have access to physical data about their employees. There are also privacy concerns ranging from constant video or audio surveillance by wearables to potential medical information revealed by devices that read heart rates.
Kumin mentioned that he is uncomfortable with potential abuses by bosses with the power to constantly watch.
"What if someone of a certain gender, race or age is monitored disproportionally compared to their younger, whiter, male-er colleague?" he asked.
Wearables have already made their way into workplace-related lawsuits. In 2014, a fitness trainer filed a personal injury lawsuit and used Fitbit data to prove to the courts that her exercise level decreased after the accident, affecting her ability to work. The case is an example of what could happen when not just workers but employers and insurers begin to use wearable data in courts.
But given the legal risks, are wearables worth it, given the bump in worker output they provide? Elise Gould, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says that wearable use is likely to lead to higher profit margins for a company. But she's concerned that those returns won't be reflected in the employees' paychecks. "What will employers do with that data? Do workers have any collective bargaining power to use this data to make sure they are getting compensated for their work?" she asked, adding that many companies that use these technologies, such as Amazon, do not have unionized work forces.
She said that she's concerned about erosion of trust between the employee and employer when employees are so closely monitored. "It's stressful. And psychological effects can be a cost to productivity as well," she said.