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U.K. Construction Company Works to Reduce Risk From Damaging Vibes

Carillion is working with Lancaster University to test an RFID system designed to track employees' exposure to tool-related vibrations and, thus, help prevent injuries.
By Claire Swedberg
Apr 28, 2008Researchers at Lancaster University are halfway through a four-year pilot with U.K. construction firm Carillion using RFID technology to gauge the safety of construction employees at risk for hand/arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), also known as "white finger," as a result of overexposure to heavily vibrating equipment.

Although construction companies strive to prevent workplace injuries and health hazards, they have few tools available to track the health risk to a specific employee. A group of researchers at Lancaster University is studying how RFID might offer a means to track the amount and length of a worker's exposure to vibrations from heavy equipment.

Gerd Kortuem
The project, known as Networked Embedded Models and Memories of Physical Work Activity (NEMO), involves both the technical and psychological aspects of tracking an individual's exposure to vibration—not only measuring whether it can be done accurately, but also investigating how that worker accepts the tracking technology.

"All industrial activities are very dangerous," says Gerd Kortuem, a professor in Lancaster University's computing department. Although employers attempt to reduce accidents by providing education and safety equipment, he adds, there is little awareness as to how effective such measures might be, especially in the case of long-term health dangers.

HAVS, caused by prolonged exposure to intense vibration from such tools as jackhammers, drills or grass cutters, results in a loss of sensation in the fingers and can be disabling. Strict guidelines dictate the maximum amount of exposure to vibration a person can sustain, but tracking that amount on an individual level can be difficult.

Lancaster University researchers have developed a system consisting of active RFID tags with built-in accelerometer sensors. The tags can be attached to tools to measure the level of vibration, as well as how long a particular tool is being operated. Compliant with the 802.14 IEEE Wi-Fi standard, the tag transmits the accelerometer's data to an RF interrogator in the employee's badge. The badge, about the size of a typical cell phone, contains a chip, battery and display, and can compute and store the time and level of vibration the wearer is exposed to. As it collects that information, the badge's screen displays how long the worker has been exposed to vibration, and how much more is allowable within a specific amount of time.

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