AUSTIN (KXAN) — One Texas construction company is looking to technology to keep its employees safe during the hottest summer months.

Seth Campbell, a safety manager for Rogers O’Brien Construction, said heat is his top safety concern for workers. His job is to make sure everyone goes home safe to their families at the end of every day.

“Heat is definitely one of our top conversations because it can sneak up on you before you even know it,” he said. “And next thing you know you’re in the hospital, or worse.”

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show there were 42 occupational fatalities from 2011 to 2018 due to “exposure to environmental heat.”

“Water, rest, shade” is their motto to keep workers safe in the heat, meaning every two hours everyone takes a break, gets water and rests in the shade to cool down body temperatures. They also use freezer pops with electrolytes as a break treat.

This summer, amid record-setting heat, the construction company began piloting SafeGuard, a worker safety technology, at three job sites across Texas, including one in Austin.

About 10 workers at each project began wearing a smartwatch or sensor that monitors several body signs.

A worker at a job site in Austin uses Safeguard technology to monitor health while at work. (Courtesy Rogers-O’Brien Construction)

Zach Kiehl, CEO and co-founder of Sentinel — the company that created SafeGuard—said the product is in its development phase with an early adaptor program of up to 30 clients with discounted access to the product in exchange for feedback.

He said the company has had lots of traction in Texas, thanks to constant triple-degree heat during summer, from industries concerned about heat stress on their employees.

Campbell said the company plans to expand the SafeGuard technology to all of its projects. While it’s not mandatory, the company is providing the smartwatch needed to use SafeGuard to its employees who want to use the technology.

How does it work?

The Safeguard sensors monitor heat levels, oxygen levels, air quality, movement and other signs, according to SafeGuard.

If the sensor notices something is off, an alert goes to the worker’s watch, their “guardian” and the job site superintendent. Alerts are sent to multiple people so an alert is not missed, Campbell said.

“It’s really cool to see the reaction of the people that are using them because they feel another layer of protection,” Campbell said. “Because some people can’t feel their heart rate going higher than what it needs to be, so it sends them a little alert.”

How is it helping?

Campbell said the product has “already paid for itself” in catching several employees’ body temperatures rising to an unsafe level. He said those employees then took a break, monitored their core body temperature in the SafeGuard app and returned to work once it was safe.

In another case, an employee learned about an underlying health issue after using SafeGuard.

The company said many pilot program users have spent about 50% less on manual labor for employee health and safety monitoring after using the technology.

Worker concerns

Campbell said while the pilot has been successful and he has heard positive feedback about the technology, some employees are skeptical or apprehensive about how their employer is monitoring them.

Kiehl said the system is designed “to be very opt in,” meaning an employee can start and stop monitoring at any time. They also have access to their data 24-7, he said.

“It’s not a black box that’s going to sit on your arm or your chest that just sends data off to your employer,” Kiehl said. “You have total awareness and access and control of what happens to that data—who gets to see it, if you want to send it to your doctor, to your lawyer to the union president…it’s up to you.”

Kiehl said there are several “safeguards” in place to make sure workers are taken care of and their data is protected.

He said the technology is not for everyone, but the company has seen up to 80% voluntary adoption of pilot companies’ employees.