Digital assistance systems are gaining popularity for private use and at the workplace. This article shows the possibilities for using wearables at work and the related labor and employment law aspects.
What are wearables?
Wearables are items of small mobile computer technology that can be worn on the body, usually on the arm or head. They are primarily wearable, digitally networked devices such as smartwatches, smart glasses, smart rings, fitness bracelets and special clothing with extra functions. By providing information, evaluations and instructions, wearables can support employees in performing their work, detect and counteract health hazards in the workplace, and be used to optimize operational processes.
In this context, wearable technology can be used in particular for health-related aspects, to track user movements and to collect, analyze and document body-related data. During working hours, body signals such as the pulse can be recorded and voice pitch, in particular, emotions can be measured.
Many wearable technologies also support augmented reality, i.e. a reality created and expanded with virtual aspects using computer-generated content. This requires a camera system that can record reality. Information is superimposed in the recording by software that enhances visual perception with text or images.
Wearables can support and expand human capabilities and improve performance as a result. More specifically, they are a means of human enhancement, which in essence is the optimization of humans with the help of active agents and aids.
Possible uses of wearables at work
The extent to which wearables influence human work processes is largely determined by the selected area of use.
Logistics is a key area here. With voice picking systems, for example, employees are guided step by step when they use the technology, so the planning is done for them. This eliminates the need for handheld scanners and numerous pages of paper lists, which as a result helps to counteract the shortage of personnel and the associated significant time pressure in logistics. As a result, work processes can be accelerated, and errors and disruptions can often be avoided.
In addition to logistics, the field of manufacturing is also a major area of application for wearables. Unlike logistics, manufacturing is dominated by skilled labor to a greater extent. Smart glasses and smartwatches can provide access to instructions and construction plans and transmit information about the machines digitally, without requiring anyone to operate them on site 24/7.
Wearables can also be used as part of trainee and apprenticeship programs. For example, smart glasses can enable employees to perform certain training steps independently, and machines can be simulated virtually for training purposes. This way the actual machine can still be used for production, and there is no downtime to accommodate training purposes.
Labor and employment law aspects
A recent study¹ shows that employees are open to using wearables if they have a clear benefit and at the same time there are reliable, transparent rules and limits on their use. Collecting and documenting employee data not only makes it possible to create personal data and movement profiles, but the data can also be used to monitor employee behavior and/or performance. Employee data protection therefore plays a crucial role in this context.
With the help of collective agreements, which are permitted pursuant to section 26 (4) German Federal Data Protection Act (BDSG), an appropriate balance of both interests can be established with regard to processing personal data and special categories of personal data of employees. In this regard, the parties to such agreement must observe the requirements of Art. 88 (2) GDPR and the general principles under Art. 5 GDPR. The principle of purpose limitation is particularly important here. The purposes for which employee data is collected, processed or used must be described clearly and in detail in the collective agreement, and the employee must be able to clearly recognize and understand whether, by whom and for what purpose their personal data is collected (this also results from the requirement of transparency).
In companies with a works council, a works agreement is required in any case due to the right of co-determination under section 87 (1) no. 6 German Works Council Constitution Act (BetrVG) if it involves introducing and using technical equipment that can monitor the behavior or performance of employees. Before using wearable technology, which is only useful when used together with the associated IT tools, it is necessary to involve the employee representatives. The works agreement should clearly regulate the handling of data, i.e. above all, the benefits of using the data, and at the same time establish reliable and transparent rules and limits. In a works agreement it is also possible to completely prohibit that personal data is saved and evaluated to monitor behavior and performance, and/or to provide that employees have the right to switch off the wearables, at least during their breaks.
The use of wearables can positively support work processes in the company. They can facilitate work activities and achieve greater operational efficiency as a result. This helps employees but can also be entail the risk of more work and increased control of employees. For this reason, comprehensive regulations that define the limits of the use of wearables and exclude potential misuse are necessary and indispensable in works agreements regarding the use of wearables.
¹ Beschäftigte relativ offen für den Einsatz von „Wearables“ – wenn Nutzen offensichtlich ist und Missbrauch ausgeschlossen wird - Hans-Böckler-Stiftung (boeckler.de)