One Step Ahead: Optimizing Worker Performance, Comfort, and Safety through Footwear

Though desk-bound office workers may be envious from behind their stand-up desks, walking and being on your feet all day is fundamental to many professions: cashiers, counter personnel, factory and warehouse workers, medical clinicians, construction, manufacturing retail employees and front line delivery workers, among them. In fact, in our modern, service-driven economy, research shows that almost half of all workers in Europe and the US spend more than three-quarters of their workday on their feet.

Employees who stand for most or all of a day are at greater risk of health problems including varicose veins, back problems, high blood pressure, heart and circulatory issues, swelling of the feet and legs, foot problems, joint damage, and pregnancy difficulties. Now consider that a “standing” job today is most likely to take place on concrete – about the worst possible surface to stand on for 8 or more hours at a time.

The economic impacts from the employer’s perspective of unmitigated standing on concrete all day include increased sick leave, fatigue, diminished productivity and morale and employee retention. The health and safety of employees is paramount (or should be), not least of all because it supports employee morale, has a material quality of life/work impact, and directly affects the bottom line.

Impacts of Standing – Especially on Concrete.

Each year, thousands of work-related foot injuries are reported, and an increasing number of sick days taken because of back, leg and foot problems and associated joint pain and bone degeneration caused from standing all day with incorrect footwear and/or unforgiving (to human physiology), hard, often concrete, surfaces.

The inflexibility of concrete affects feet first. Feet take the brunt of impact, after which, the most reported symptoms are general discomfort, fatigue and swelling in the legs. Workers who spend too much time on their feet have an exponentially increased risk of pain in their feet, shins and calves, knees, thighs, hips, and lower back. Studies show that musculoskeletal disorders are the most common causes of work-related ill-health, and that almost 20% of these disorders affect the lower limbs.

If the orthopedic impact isn’t enough, prolonged standing is also associated with contributing to and/or the worsening of existing coronary heart disease, varicose veins, and chronic venous insufficiency. Further studies suggest that work-related back pain is about twice as common in those who stand for work compared to those who usually work sitting, even after controlling for factors like age and required lifting of weight.

The effects of standing all day can show up almost right away; prolonged standing or walking can also exacerbate and accelerate health problems and soft tissue injury over time.

Each year, employee sick leave from lower limb issues because of continuous standing costs companies around the world billions of dollars. The result is not only in decreased productivity, but the follow-on impacts on company finances and morale can be significant.

Envisioning Solutions

To help prevent and alleviate pain in traditional standing jobs like factories and warehouses, it’s common for insoles to be inserted into work shoes or boots. The idea is that insoles made from shock-absorbing material sit in direct contact with the feet to reduce overall fatigue and pain. This is a rudimentary remedial measure to alleviate some of the risks.

Given the continued negative impacts on individual health and wellbeing as well as on the productivity and finances of businesses as a result of lower-limb stress from standing all day, clearly there’s room for ergonomic improvement on the traditional safety footwear and work boot. As employers care for the well-being of their staff, seek to consider foot health for optimal performance and reduce the risk of long-term injury, in this era of digitalization, predictive data analytics, artificial intelligence, smart data and smart sensors there’s more we can do to monitor, detect and address potential harm.

For example, imagine those insoles equipped with sensors undetectable to the user that could capture and digest literally millions of pieces of in-shoe information: pressure maps, distance traveled, impact effect on skeletal structure and joints, weight carried, statistical data on total force, weight distribution pattern, locomotion, normal foot comparison, multiple plantar regions of analysis, gait line and more.

To start, it would allow the creation of tailor-made insoles or orthotics based on specific and unique user data. These insoles could help improve posture, relieve joint stress, support ligaments, treat overpronation, increase comfort while walking as well as help reduce the incidence of other foot conditions common to standing-on-concrete jobs like heel (plantar fasciitis) and forefoot (metatarsalgia) pain.

Now imagine the sensors are connected via a personal area network (PAN) to a wearable like a smart watch that alerts a user to a variety of issues that lets them be proactive in both injury prevention and health maintenance. Or alternately, an employee could be connected via a LAN/WAN and the cloud to an employer or healthcare- management dashboard that provides insight into trends and potential “red zone” issues for at-risk employees.

In-shoe sensors could alert workers when they should replace their orthotic, if pressure ulcers are imminent or even simply when they should shift position. Further, the sensors could identify behaviors that indicate fatigue: productivity and morale could be instantly improved by having employees proactively take breaks, or even just a walk (as an alternative to a standing position) to re-establish circulation in the legs and feet, improve posture and boost energy. When workers are alert, incidence of injury and accident drops dramatically.

Perhaps management has a dashboard from which to manage and read sensor data, informing them when to rotate certain job functions, alleviating potentially harmful sustained activities and providing a rest period. Bodies don’t like to have the same continuous posture or load placed on them, and many of the prevailing and long-term health issues associated with standing jobs could be mitigated simply by knowing when to alter position, function, weight carried or other critical factors.

Optimize Human Performance and Comfort

XSENSOR delivers this kind of data-driven, in-shoe, sensor intelligence. The sensors themselves are durable and reliable, virtually undetectable to the wearer and able to withstand continuous use.

Our proprietary Intelligent Dynamic Sensing gait and measurement system provides the most accurate plantar pressure and gait data available. With the highest quality static and dynamic pressure data and imagery possible, users could know precisely where sustained pressure is mounting in real-time, allowing them to adjust accordingly.

The precision of Intelligent Dynamic Sensing elevates the efficacy of an insole, optimizing worker performance, comfort, and safety. The ability to evaluate and compare plantar pressure and gait data over time can provide key insights, without which gains may not be realized.

How do you envision the solutions in this area of critical need for employees that are at risk of injury? It starts with data collection and predictive analytics to know when an employee is at risk of harm. Like the classic metaphor about the “best time to plant a tree”; the best time to collect data to better understand this challenge and improve upon the situation is “20 years ago and today. ”