There’s a leaderboard that ranks you against your teammates. There’s a vibrating plastic rectangle that straps to your hip, your belt or your back. Earn enough points, and you might even win a prize: headphones or maybe a flat-screen TV.
But this isn’t laser tag — this is an industrial warehouse.
And this isn’t a game: It’s a system that is supposed to reduce the chance that you might blow out your back or your knees working in one of the countless warehouses, factories, data centers or delivery companies that make up the backbone of the country’s tech industry.
Tech startups like Kinetic, Modjoul and StrongArm, inspired by the popularity of Fitbits, Apple Watches and other consumer wearables, are selling similar devices to companies like Walmart and Amazon with the promise they’ll reduce the nagging — and costly — problem of worker injuries. The pitch: Give watches, belts or harnesses to every worker, track their movements and record their data, buzz them whenever they make an unsafe move, and watch injury rates drop.
The pitch is working, even as workplace safety experts point out the obvious: that the human body is not designed to repeat at rapid-fire pace the tasks required of many of today’s warehouse jobs. Fitting workers with these gadgets could enable companies to avoid bigger, long-term fixes to their workplaces, all while allowing them to record workers’ every twist, fall and bend, skeptics say.
In April, Amazon chose Modjoul for its first round of investments from its new $1 billion Industrial Innovation Fund (Amazon declined to comment further about its investment). Walmart had implemented StrongArm’s wearable tech in 18 buildings and across more than 6,000 workers as of May 2021, and a Walmart spokesperson confirmed in June 2022 that the company is continuing to roll out the technology to more facilities.
These wearable tech companies gamify safety. Most of them give workers a safety score or allot points every day to rank employees against their peers, turning their scores into a competition and urging them to do better when they next clock in. StrongArm goes so far as to call workers “Industrial Athletes” and names its demo devices for famous athletes (I used the “Alex Morgan” device when I tested the system in June).
These tools — whether belts, watches or other wearables — work in the same general way. They record movements like bends, twists and lifts, and then use proprietary algorithms to calculate when those movements cross into territory that could cause an injury, prompting either the worker or the manager to correct how someone is moving. Some record location data when workers move through a facility; some have microphones. All of them promise that they do not collect biometric or sensitive health information.
The analytics tools provide an immense trove of granular data about every worker. StrongArm’s platform shows every worker’s safety score over any time span and specifies the time of day when the riskiest movements occur, both on average across the workplace and for each worker. It even charts “tilt speed,” which is the rate at which someone bends at an angle, and counts “forward bends,” as well as the time of day when they happen. The platform can generate charts for how “athletes” compare to their peers and how facilities compare to industry averages.
We want to make sure that you are able to play with your grandkids and go fish on the weekend when you retire.
Most of these companies were conceived within the last 10 years and moved out of pilot and beta testing just before or during COVID-19. As the market continues to grow, some industry experts worry about the potential for abuse. If the devices can consistently and accurately identify risky movements — still an “if,” according to experts interviewed by Protocol — the data could help companies shirk responsibility for creating jobs that cause injuries. For example, if I received a poor safety score and then pulled a muscle in my back, the injury could be blamed on a failure to move properly as indicated in my safety score, even though the strain of performing the job led to the injury. The data could also be used punitively: A company could generate a list of the least “safe” workers and fire them before they get hurt.
“These companies will not protect workers with highly repetitive jobs where they are forced to do forceful, stressful … positions over and over and again, twisting and turning and bending their wrists and elbows and contorting their body,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow at Georgetown University’s initiative on labor and the working poor as well as a former senior policy official for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “The job will still be dangerous.”
All of the company leaders interviewed by Protocol insisted that their technology is not built for punitive or masking purposes. StrongArm has companies pledge not to use its data punitively; Modjoul COO and founder Jen Thorson said that its data focuses on identifying companywide problems. These leaders say their tools are intended to help companies identify poorly designed jobs and reduce injury risk, saving them money on worker compensation payouts and reducing turnover in a tight labor market.
“How we view it and how we think about it is, this is not different from the gloves that protect your hand from laceration,” Thorson said. “This just makes sure we are protecting that part that’s unprotected. We want to make sure that you are able to play with your grandkids and go fish on the weekend when you retire.”
The nagging injury problem
The story of these startups exemplifies a recurring theme in the tech industry. New technology revolutionizes an industry — in this case, ecommerce and delivery — and causes new problems along the way. Startup founders then design more new technologies that promise to address those problems, usually by collecting vast amounts of data and creating proprietary algorithms to analyze it.
Amazon’s shipping and fulfillment revolution has transformed consumer expectations for widespread and almost immediate access to any good at any time. Every major Amazon competitor has been forced to evolve its warehousing and delivery models in response, leading to a dramatic expansion of the industry and the number of people employed in it, as well as major changes to the physical jobs themselves.
Fitting workers with wearables could enable companies to avoid bigger, long-term fixes to their workplaces.Photo: Anna Kramer/Protocol
Heavily roboticized warehouses — especially Amazon’s — have reduced the amount of walking and carrying the average worker needs to do to fill and ship a package.
Instead, workers now perform more specific, repetitive jobs that complement the robotic systems, usually involving constant picking, turning, placing and scanning while standing in one place. Those continual motions, especially at the high speeds required for most workers to meet productivity expectations (and the consumer demand that powers it all), cause musculoskeletal injuries.
Injury data reflects these changes: In 2016, the number of reported injuries in warehousing and storage in the U.S. was just over 14,000, according to occupational injury data estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in a report generated by Protocol. Those numbers steadily increased over the next five years, hitting almost 25,000 in 2020 — approximately a 78% increase. By far the greatest number of injuries fall in the “overexertion and bodily reaction” category, at more than 11,500 such injuries in 2020. Nearly half of all of the 25,000 reported injuries in 2020 were sprains, strains or tears.
The problems are especially bad at Amazon’s warehouses, which had an average injury rate at about double Walmart’s, the ecommerce giant's biggest competitor, from the beginning of 2017 to the end of 2020. Walmart and Amazon are the first- and second-largest private-sector employers in the U.S., respectively; Amazon has averaged somewhere between six and nine injuries for every 100 employees and Walmart has averaged between three and four per 100 employees since 2018, according to an analysis of OSHA data by the research arm of the Strategic Organizing Center, which represents a collection of major unions.
"Like other companies in the industry, we saw an increase in recordable injuries during this time from 2020 to 2021 as we trained so many new people — however, when you compare 2021 to 2019, our recordable injury rate declined more than 13% year over year,” Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, wrote in a statement to Protocol in April 2022. “While we still have more work to do and won’t be satisfied until we are excellent when it comes to safety, we continue to make measurable improvements in reducing injuries and keeping employees safe."
The problem has attracted the attention of the Department of Labor, which announced an audit of what OSHA has done to “address the increase in severe injuries at warehouse and order fulfillment facilities of online and other retailers,” according to a December 2021 memo.
My time as an ‘Industrial Athlete’
“These wearables reduced Walmart's warehouse injuries 64%.” After getting this pitch four times from StrongArm’s press team, I asked the company to let me try out its device. As a notoriously injury-prone person, I felt particularly suited to give these wearables a workout.
On a sweaty Wednesday in June, I hobbled into StrongArm's Brooklyn office about 24 hours after twisting my knee, meaning that it was basically guaranteed I would be unable to move in an injury-free way during our demo. I would be putting StrongArm through its paces.
A black rectangular device, about the size and shape of a flip phone, tracked my movements.Photo: Anna Kramer/Protocol
I chose soccer star Alex Morgan for my demo character and picked up the clearly well-used, dinged-up black rectangular device — about the size and shape of a flip phone — that would track my movements. The sign-in monitor showed that on the previous day, the device's user had scored a 77 for safety, fairly normal for the average worker and probably pretty upsetting for the real Alex Morgan. The black rectangle was slipped into a small backpack that fit over my shoulders, and StrongArm’s product team showed me how to get a reaction from the device.
I picked up the bag containing my heavy laptop and put it back down again, angering the little gadget tucked between my shoulder blades. It started to vibrate wildly as soon as I bent toward the ground, causing me to shoot upright in surprise. I lifted a chair over my head and dropped it to the floor, and my shoulders buzzed again. I leaned awkwardly over a low table to take notes and felt the same warning. Alex Morgan’s safety score probably dropped precipitously during the hour I limped around, testing its limits.
The easiest way to set it buzzing? Simple toe touches.
The toe touches illustrate the pros and cons of a device like StrongArm’s. Leaning over to lift something without bending your knees is one of the easiest ways to hurt yourself. The more vertical your back and the more bent your knees, the less strain you put on your body.
We all know that repetitive stressful movements cause injuries and the way to decrease them is to redesign jobs.
But if your job requires you to bend over again and again, a vibrating device won’t change that; it will, however, irritate the worker wearing it. StrongArm knows this, so its product is designed to stop vibrating if the wearer persists with a dangerous movement despite repeated vibrations. My injured knee made it impossible to bend down in a safe manner; after about five buzzes, the device stayed still and sulkily silent, even when I twisted sideways in a manner that was obviously dangerous.
In an ideal world, this scenario could flag managers and safety professionals that a job is inherently high-risk, making them realize that something about the way it’s performed needs to change. On StrongArm’s demo analytics dashboard, one of the tools available for managers shows a heat map of a prototype warehouse floor, with red indicating spots of high-risk motion where workers consistently score poorly. Theoretically, this would enable a company to focus on addressing problems in these areas of the workplace.
This is where the technology holds the most promise. But it’s also where the tech falls short. Berkowitz believes these bells and whistles detract attention from what every warehouse designer, safety professional, ergonomist and even most people walking down the street know: You shouldn’t be bending down again and again to lift things. Companies like Walmart and Amazon don’t need a device to flag high-risk jobs, she said.
“Warehouses have the data, they know who is reporting to their first aid stations, they have a record of everybody that has come in with hand pain, wrist pain, back pain, shoulder pain. They know exactly what job it was,” Berkowitz said. “It’s well-known what positions are neutral for the body and those that are not neutral, like raising your elbow, bending your wrist, if you’re doing it over and over again and you’re doing it in a forceful way.”
Tanking my safety score
One problem with relying on tech to calculate workplace injury risks is the danger of trusting bad data, said Richard Goggins, an ergonomist who has worked for Washington state’s Labor and Industries department (the state-level OSHA agency) for more than 25 years. “If you don’t know you’re getting bad data and you make decisions based on that, you could say this job appears fine and this job appears risky when that may not be the case,” said Goggins, who spoke to Protocol not as an official spokesperson for the agency but based on his ergonomics expertise.
Goggins said he hasn’t decided if the wearables are worth the hype. He has observed warehousing companies in Washington implement these devices but said that they aren’t eager to share the data with Labor and Industries when he and his team arrive for investigations or inspections.
But companies like Walmart have clearly decided there’s something behind the hype that’s worth paying for. On the day I arrived at the StrongArm offices, the Brooklyn warehouse was stacked high with teetering boxes and shelves overflowing with equipment. The company was preparing to move to a space many times bigger than this one, a manager told me. StrongArm's pallet shipments of equipment are now so large they can’t fit through the doors of the current office, and there’s nowhere near enough space for the number of employees who want to come in for work every day.
David Kabrt, StrongArm’s production director, pulled a much smaller, sleeker, palm-sized black square out of one of the boxes. The new iteration of the company’s wearable wasn’t quite ready for me to test, but it could be worn on a belt instead of between the shoulders and could eventually have the potential to collect environmental data like temperature and sound levels.
StrongArm's data-gathering is meant to help workers perform tasks more safely.Photo: Anna Kramer/Protocol
“This is going to be standard issue," said Kabrt, who sees the wearables eventually becoming status quo in warehouse-type settings. "We have the tech to solve this problem, and there’s a big return on investment.”
While I meandered around the front room of the Brooklyn warehouse, doing my lopsided bends, squats and toe touches, carrying my backpack across the room, I asked Kabrt and Jervon Ralph, a production manager, whether they worry about the data being abused to penalize workers. “That would be very deflating,” Kabrt said as Ralph nodded in agreement.
Ralph used to work in warehousing and started to feel back pain in his early 20s, which is what steered him to work for StrongArm. “One of the older employees told me to get a back brace, and I knew this is a big issue if, at 20, some guy is telling me to get a back brace,” he said.
While I couldn’t see my own safety score — the data had to upload after I removed the device from between my shoulders — Kabrt assured me that it would have plummeted after all the ways we’d deliberately tanked it. If I had come back the next day, Alex Morgan would probably have a bright red square indicating very unsafe behavior.
In that case, StrongArm would advise coaching of the employee and ensuring that the job is designed to be performed in the safest way possible. But it’s impossible to know if companies will heed this advice. “The hope is always that employers will take that coaching approach,” Goggins said.
Berkowitz said the solution is far simpler. “Workers are working so fast that they don’t have time to lift properly,” she said. “We all know that repetitive stressful movements cause injuries and the way to decrease them is to redesign jobs.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled David Kabrt's name. This story was updated on July 11, 2022.