Love them or hate them, hi-vis vests have been the new black of Australian workforce fashion and safety for decades.
But NSW workers might soon be slipping into something just as comfortable and even safer.
Trials will shortly be under way of hi-tech vests that aim to prevent workers from succumbing to all-too-common injuries to the back, joints, tendons and muscles.
Akin to the armour suit worn by Robert Downey Jr in the Iron Man movies, these new exo-skeleton vests are one of four “wearable technologies” vying to become de rigueur in safe workplaces across the state’s manufacturing, construction, health & community services and transport industries.
As the biggest insurer of workers and employers in the state, we are championing the use of advanced technologies to minimise the risks of repetitive and high-stress work that can cause injuries to muscles and bones.
Consider an electrician who must drill for long periods above his or her head; the unnatural body positions are a significant risk factor for the worker.
Likewise, for a mechanic or engineer who assembles parts while in difficult postures.
The exo-skeleton vest takes the load, reduces the risk of injury and improves productivity.
“The vest was light and comfortable - I was absolutely amazed and the difference it made in my ability to sustain different postures,” says icare’s Jennifer Cameron, who donned the Iron Man like garb this month as part of her team’s project to get wearable technologies into action.
“Without the vest on, holding an object - a laptop - over my head for a few minutes left my upper body fatigued. With the vest on I could hold the posture without any fatigue.”
The advances in wearable technology today bear a resemblance to the origins of the high-visibility vest back almost a century ago.
In 1934 an American teenager named Bob Switzer was unloading crates while working in a railway yard. He hit his head and ended up in a coma for months.
When Bob awoke, his doctors ordered him to stay in a dark room. During that time the ingenious teen experimented with paint. He soon came up with a glowing substance we now know as “day-glo” paint. Not long afterwards the US Army asked Bob to develop day-glo for fabrics. And the legend of hi-vis vests was born.
Research is still split on what impact hi-vis vests have on injury prevention. Some studies suggest the reflective strips on bright coloured clothing is the key to safety.
The high-tech wearable technology in our trials will, however, be fully tested and only rolled out when results are likely to help in the agency goal of reducing workplace accidents.
“We want to be able to say to employers in NSW - this really works and here’s how we can set it up,” according to Jennifer Cameron.
Unlike some commercial insurance companies, we have a simultaneous goal: to improve safety AND improve care for workers who are injured in the workplace AND reduce workers insurance premiums for employers.
“The majority of the public probably aren’t aware that we’re not for profit,” says Geoff Henderson, General Manager of Commercial Engagement and Performance at icare.
“Our measures are about prevention, care, return to work and return to life. We approach it from a people centred perspective.”
Geoff admits cultural change can be tough for some businesses who have traditionally baulked at investing in workplace health and safety.
“Employers are starting to understand the value of creating safer workplaces. They know workplace safety adds value when it comes to attracting people to their organisation and having a more engaged workforce,” he says.
But it’s a tough conversation to have. A lot of businesses don’t know that workplace injury isn’t an unavoidable part of doing business. That’s where we can help by showing the cost of their inaction on workplace safety.
What’s more, we even reward companies financially when they think creatively to reduce the risk of workplace injuries and get staff back into their jobs as soon as possible through lower premiums.
We can’t forget either, that it’s not always the person who makes the claim who is paying the premium.
Hence the financial incentive. Akin to a no claims bonus on care insurance, employers who can reduce their employees’ injury claims by improving workplace safety receive discounts on insurance premiums.
In the past few years we have delivered hundreds of millions of dollars in discounts to NSW businesses that demonstrated safe working behaviours.
The counter-intuitive aspect of this safety push is that we offer workplace safety audits, expertise and programs to businesses as part of its broader value proposition for customers - and that is especially important for smaller organisations.
“Large companies are well resourced and can do some really good work on safety. It’s when you go down a level and you find the HR manager is also the safety champion and is often the payroll manager and the organisation simply doesn’t have resources or knowledge and skills regarding safety and wellbeing. That’s where we can make significant difference,” according to Jennifer Cameron.
And have you ever wondered why hi-vis vests are impossible to avoid? A decade back the day-glo colours in textiles faded quite quickly. Technological advances mean today’s hi-vis clothing can last for a decade or more.