Fatigue is a workplace problem that affects all industries.
However, the consequences can be a lot more serious if the fatigued worker is a heavy equipment operator on a roadbuilding site than a data entry clerk dozing off over a keyboard. While the optimum solution involves workers getting more rest, high-tech has stepped up to assist operators and the companies who employ them.
Caterpillar currently offers a suite of solutions for addressing operator fatigue. The first is an operator monitoring and intervention sensing technology developed by Seeing Machines. It employs an in-cab camera system designed to analyze signs of fatigue or distraction in operators — primarily eye and head tracking. The system can warn the operator by shaking the driver's seat or sounding an in-cab alarm. Alerts are monitored by Caterpillar's fleet monitoring centre and reported to jobsite supervisors.
The Cat Smartband, powered by Fatigue Science, is a device worn on the wrist that offers employees a fatigue score based on sleep quality and quantity.
Australian company SmartCap is leveraging a different approach. Instead of monitoring symptoms of fatigue such as head nodding, it works like a small-scale electroencephalograph (EEG), monitoring the equipment operator's brain waves. The technology was developed by 3M as part of a research project funded by the Australian mining industry
"The existing technologies were working like event recorders after someone has had a micro-sleep — a sleep of extremely short duration — but not as predictive devices," says Brady Marcus, SmartCap's director of sales for North America. "EEGs have been used in sleep studies and research for the past 70 years and were identified as the best way of actually monitoring how alert or fatigued somebody is."
"We make it clear that SmartCap can only provide fatigue information to the employer — it doesn't let them see their brainwaves,"
However, lab models typically use bulky equipment and wired electrodes pressed against the subject's scalp.
"The challenge was to leverage the technology so that it could be adapted into something practical that could be used by equipment operators in the field," says Marcus.
SmartCap products use dry electrodes to process micro-voltages picked up from the scalp. A proprietary algorithm compares these against various EEG patterns found in a broad range of subjects, then translates them into an alertness level.
SmartCap headwear includes a baseball cap, toque and headband. Life by SmartCap reduces the technology to a band that can be inserted inside any company headwear, including a hardhat.
Operators begin their shifts by placing a small processor card inside the headwear. The card provides a signal sent to a smartphone, tablet or in-cab display device via Bluetooth.
The headwear costs about US$200 per person. SmartCap charges an additional monthly subscription fee to monitor the alertness of the worker wearing the device.
"If you're approaching the point of risk and you're not as alert as you can be, you'll receive a quick audible and visual warning that you're moving toward fatigue," says Marcus. "At that point you can take an action like sitting up straight, drinking some water, chewing gum or biting an apple.
If you're getting to the point where you're at a high risk of having a micro-sleep, you'll get another alert telling you that you're in the red and you'll have to make a change of environment. We also have the ability to send a message to a supervisor to alert them to assist the operator or instruct them to take a break—whatever is necessary to get them back to a top level of alertness."
The product has been available commercially for six years, but only in North America over the past two. While mining companies have shown the greatest interest, Marcus says he's also fielding calls from the construction, trucking, oil, gas and manufacturing sectors.
He notes operators are often more accepting of headwear technology than having a camera aimed at them.
"We make it clear that SmartCap can only provide fatigue information to the employer — it doesn't let them see their brainwaves," says Marcus.