Wearable technology (movement sensors) and hazardous manual handling

This guidance is about using movement sensors to identify and assess the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) associated with hazardous manual handling (HMH).


What is wearable technology

Wearable technology is any technology that is worn on the user's body. Many wearable technologies are developed specifically for a particular industry.

They include equipment such as:

  • movement sensors
  • exoskeletons
  • 'heads up display' (HUD) systems viewed inside a surgeon or fighter pilot's visor
  • cardiac electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring watches
  • force sensing gloves

This guidance focuses on the use of one type of wearable technology, movement sensors.

What are movement sensors

Movement sensors are a form of wearable technology. The equipment is often attached to the shoulders and back to record postures and movements. Some movement sensors can also measure force being applied by the hands. In the case of manual handling, movement sensors may record postures, movements, and forces when manual work is undertaken within the workplace.

Movement sensors also collect and store data. This data can be used to identify manual work that involves hazardous movements, postures and forces. This data can be used to identify appropriate and practical measures to control potential MSD risks. Some movement sensors also provide real time feedback to employees about hazardous movements via auditory alerts.

Considerations before introducing movement sensors

Before introducing movement sensors in the workplace, employers must consult with any health and safety representatives (HSRs) and affected employees so far as is reasonably practicable. This consultation should include ensuring that movement sensors are not introducing additional risks to employees.

For example:

  • movement sensors may not be safe or compatible with clothing and personal protective equipment such as heavy outer clothing (warm jackets used in cold storage facilities) or outer reflective vests
  • sensors may cause discomfort or record inaccurate data
  • auditory alerts may increase fatigue and may be ignored if they are used over long periods of time
  • inappropriate surveillance or monitoring in the workplace may constitute a psychosocial hazard

Employers also need to consider any other legal obligations they may be subject to when considering the use of movement sensors, such as those in relation to privacy and surveillance.

Information on privacy during employment

How should movement sensors be fitted and worn

Movement sensors should be fitted properly and used according to the manufacturer's instructions. If they are not configured and fitted properly, movement sensors may cause discomfort and record inaccurate data. Employers should also consider the length of time that movement sensors are worn in the workplace and ensure that employees are trained on the safe and appropriate use of movement sensors.

Using movement sensors to improve workplace design

Data from movement sensors can be used to identify postures, movements and forces that may contribute to the risk of MSDs. This information can then be used to inform interventions to reduce risk factors.

For example: employers may use the data to inform task redesign such as raising the heights of pallets, so employees do not have to repetitively forward bend their backs in high volume order picking.

Data from movement sensors can also be used to assess the effectiveness of the control measures that have been implemented. Once the changes are implemented, movement sensors could be used for a short period of time to confirm that the changes are working and reducing the risk of MSD.

Data capture in itself is not a control option. Data should be used to make improvements to the manner in which work is performed to control the risk of MSDs, so far as reasonably practicable.

Information on how data from movement sensors can be used to inform and evaluate work design

Limitations of using movement sensors to improve workplace design

Movement sensors only provide information on the physical risk factors that increase MSD risk. For example, movements, postures, and forces.

Environmental and psychosocial factors also increase the risk of MSDs.

Environmental factors may include:

  • vibration
  • heat
  • humidity
  • cold and wind
  • slippery and uneven floor surfaces
  • obstructions
  • poor lighting

Psychosocial factors may include:

  • work demands including workload and the pace of work
  • low levels of control over work
  • poor levels of resourcing
  • poor levels of support by management, supervisors and colleagues

All of these factors need to be identified and controlled to address the risk of MSDs associated with HMH.

See the Hazardous manual handling compliance code for further details.

Using movement sensors to change behaviour is a lower order control

Employers will not fulfil their Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) obligations to control the risk of

MSDs associated with HMH by only using movement sensors to provide feedback to employees about hazardous movements, postures and forces.

If findings from the use of movement sensors are just used to change employee behaviour, such as their lifting technique, employers may be reliant on risk controls that are less effective in the longer term. Their investment could therefore be wasted.

Using data, alerts or alarms from movement sensors to try to change employee behaviour is a type of training. This type of training does not directly reduce the risks of MSDs associated with HMH. Depending on the number of alarms within the workplace, they may also reduce effectiveness and increase confusion.

Providing 'how to lift' training, like basic instructions to bend your knees and keep your back straight, is not effective in reducing injury risks. This type of training does not control the source of the risk.

You must use the highest level of risk control in the hierarchy of controls, so far as is reasonably practicable. The best control will always be to eliminate the risk of MSD. More information on managing the risks of MSDs associated with HMH is available on the WorkSafe Victoria website and in the Hazardous manual handling compliance code (includes hierarchy of controls).