Five months after she joined an Amazon fulfillment warehouse, 49-year-old Vickie Shannon Allen injured her back while counting goods in an ‘awkward position’. Following the injury, Allen took medical leave to get herself checked up and recuperate. She had to take an additional two weeks of unpaid leave as she didn’t have the money to drive back to work. Allen’s story is the life of many workers spread across America. KINETIC, a New York-based IoT startup, is on a mission to ‘outsmart workplace injuries’ for the industrial workforce.
KINETIC has developed a wearable device and an accompanying cloud-based software system called REFLEX to help alert workers in unsafe postures.
Back Injuries are costing US Companies Billions
The 2018 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index estimates that serious nonfatal workplace injuries cost US businesses $58.5B. The leading cause of injuries has been overexertion – injuries related to lifting, pushing, pulling and similar activities. Overexertion related injuries alone cost US businesses $13.7B annually. Such injuries primarily affect the back and according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS), 38.5% of all work-related musculoskeletal disorders involved the back. Stock clerks and order fillers (45.7%) and freight, stock, and material movers (43%) were groups with some of the highest incidence of back related injuries.
Following an incident, firms incur significant costs, such as medical compensations, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fines, worker benefits, and legal services. Apart from these direct costs, injuries also have indirect costs on account of medical and productivity related expenses that are borne by the firm and the worker. Occupational injuries lead to income inequality among workers as injured workers find it difficult to keep up with continued medical expenditure. On the one hand, worker’s don’t earn enough to cover even 25% of these costs while on the other hand, their earning position further deteriorates as injured workers make 15% less than their uninjured peers over 10 years.
In the aftermath of an incident, firms face further costs relating to hiring and training new employees, general administrative costs and a decline in productivity. Back-related problems cause the highest number of days away from work. With 195,800 cases, transportation and material moving workers had the highest number of cases with days away from work in 2017. These injured workers spent a median of 13 days away from work to recuperate. Days away from work results in productivity losses for the firm.
With REFLEX, KINETIC is trying to help this high-risk population reduce the number of unsafe movements while helping firms reduce costly injuries and downtime.
How KINETIC REFLEX Works
REFLEX is a small pager-like device that can measure the number of unsafe postures performed by workers on a daily basis. The device is worn on the belt near the hip. As the hip is indicative of body movements, the sensors and algorithms in the device can track the full body biomechanics and movements based on a person’s hip motion. Based on the movement and biomechanics, the algorithms decipher if the worker is in a strenuous posture with high injury risk. There are certain motions such as bending too quickly or twisting and bending or jumping that lead to injuries. When the device identifies the worker moving into such high-risk postures, the device buzzes with a light vibration, nudging the worker to change posture.
Apart from giving instantaneous feedback on the position, the device also shows the worker the number of unsafe postures performed during the day. In order to make the device more interactive and foster a safer environment, the REFLEX has a goal setting feature. A goal of X number of unsafe postures or less is given to workers. In order to play a more integrative role in the worker’s life, the device also shows the time, the number of steps walked apart from the number of unsafe postures.
The KINETIC Dashboard gives insight on worker activity based on accumulated data. It can help individuals track their performance while also helping the firm identify the most unsafe roles with high injury risk. These can be used to introduce targeted performance and safety improvement measures while also helping individuals with high injury risk
Evolution of KINETIC and REFLEX
REFLEX is a product of that has evolved out of Dr. Haytham Elhaway’s personal experience. Haytham grew up witnessing his mother, an elderly care nurse, suffering back injuries because of her work. This experience combined with the large magnitude of back injuries inspired Haytham to look for a solution to occupational injuries. Haytham’s background in biomedical engineering from Imperial College London helped him come up with an approach. Haytham partnered with a friend, Dr. Aditya Bansal, whose background in electrical and computer engineering from Purdue and experience in wearables provided the technological basis for developing REFLEX. KINETIC was co-founded in 2014 by the duo.
Since its inception, KINETIC has been working closely with small firms, running pilot tests in order to improve their product and get it right. The present pager form of the REFLEX is a result of continuous feedback and innovation.
Less than a year after product development began, the first version of a wearable system was launched in 2015 comprising a wristwatch and back brace. While this system was able to capture data and movement with high accuracy, feedback from pilot tests revealed that workers didn’t take to it. Apart from being cumbersome as they weren’t used to wearing such objects, there were logistical and hygiene issues such as cleaning a sweaty back brace at the end of the workday. In order to overcome these challenges, a chest strap version much like the GoPro Chest Mount was created. But this second version also was met with resistance from workers.
In 2017, the team went back to the drawing board with their experience and came up with a few guidelines. The device had to be comfortable to wear and had to blend into a worker’s existing outfit. As compliance of workers wearing the gear was a challenge, the device also had to be desirable so that workers would actually use it even without supervision. Meeting these guidelines while also ensuring the accuracy of the device’s understanding of biomechanics was a challenge. As a result of this exercise, the current pager form was arrived at.
The REFLEX has been able to bring about marked improvements in worker safety. In a 5-week pilot with Crane Worldwide Logistics, REFLEX was able to reduce the number of unsafe postures by up to 96%, from 320 unsafe postures to 12 unsafe postures. Apart from an overall performance improvement of 84%, the analytics helped provide the management with actionable insight. The riskiest times were the hour leading up to lunch and the hour before the end of the shift. Crane managers were able to act upon this to change processes to improve safety.
With the wearables market set to double to 240.1 million units by 2021 and versatile sector-specific requirements emerging in workers safety, startups are developing general as well as niche solutions. MākuSafe, a West Des Moines, IA based startup, is working on improving worker safety with an IoT armband that scans the workplace environment for risks. While KINETIC is focusing on a general solution for the manufacturing, warehousing, logistics and construction industries, other startups are focusing on sector-specific applications. SmartCap Technologies has developed a cap that monitors stress and fatigue levels among truck drivers in real time. MIT is also working on a full body IoT gear with their Safety++ project focusing on the energy industry.
In October, KINETIC raised $4.5M in a seed funding round with investors such as Crosslink Capital and Primary Venture Partners. The team intends to use the funds to expand manufacturing and scale operations. Recognizing that its success depends on institutional sales, KINETIC has been focusing on increasing its sales team in order to convert its pilot projects into sales. While KINETIC is a pioneer in worker wearables, the sales team’s conversion will be the critical component that determines KINETIC’s emergence as a market leader.
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