Wearable Sensors: An Ethical Framework for Decision-MakingPosted on by
Wearable sensors are all the rage. They give us information about our health, fitness, productivity and safety. However, downsides to this technology are accuracy and security of the data and challenges to personal privacy. How wearable technology is used in occupational safety and health research and practice is evolving. Wearable sensors can detect and alert workers to harmful exposures and can assist employers in managing their workforce. For example, NIOSH and partners developed the Portable Dust Meter used in underground mining to measure how much dust a worker is exposed to during a work shift. Commercially-available four gas meters are worn by workers to alert them of dangerous gas levels. As wearable sensors become more commonplace and useful for monitoring employee safety and health, values conflict and ethical dilemmas arise that need to be addressed.
A Perspective from the Past
Employee monitoring programs for medical surveillance are not new. Schulte and DeBord (2000) discussed some of the components of a genetics monitoring program and many of the issues raised in those discussions are relevant to current concerns for wearable sensors. For example: What are the goals of the monitoring program? How will the results be communicated? How will the data be used? Will informed consent be sought? These types of questions should be asked and answered as part of any employee monitoring program.
A Proposed Ethical Framework for Decision-making about Employee Monitoring
To ensure that innovation does not outpace thoughtful consideration of ethical issues, an ethical framework such as that proposed below can be used as a decision-making tool. The framework sets out key ethical objectives and values relevant to a decision.
Potential monitoring programs should be evaluated according to how well they advance the following key ethical objectives:
(1) apply wearable sensors to benefit or contribute to society (justification);
(2) use the least intrusive means necessary to accomplish the objectives (optimization); and
(3) anticipate and avoid or minimize potential adverse consequences (minimization of harm).
Potential monitoring programs should also be evaluated according to how well they promote the following key ethical values:
- Individual autonomy (informed consent)
- The monitoring program’s policy, procedures, and objectives are disclosed in clear and understandable terms, and the policy, procedures, and objectives are, in fact, understood by the employees
- Any future disclosure of the data is described along with its purpose
- If videotaping is being used, non-participants must have the opportunity to work outside of the videotaping area
- Consent is essential to autonomy. Employers should consider an opt-in process
- Employers should consider whether initial or continued employment means implied consent. A key feature of consent is that it must be provided voluntarily
- Cultural sensitivity
- Engage a variety of stakeholders from varying cultural perspectives to develop culturally sensitive monitoring programs
- Individual control
- Promote the individual’s control over his/her own information by protecting against intrusions into informational privacy
- Employer interests
- Promote the employer’s legitimate interest in organizational security, productivity and favorable reputation
- Clarify ownership of and accountability for information collected
- Specify conditions for mandated external reporting (e.g., law enforcement) and punitive actions, and
- Identify responsibility and liability for inaccuracies in information collection (including considering compensation for injury)
This framework can be a helpful decision-making tool as stakeholders and researchers seek to move forward with promising technologies in a responsible and accountable manner.
Please share your thoughts on this approach to the ethical use of sensors and sensor data, as well as your experiences on how sensors are being used, or where they are needed to improve the of worker safety, health, well-being and productivity.
Angela Morley, JD, MPH, is the Human Research Regulatory Administrator of the CDC/NIOSH Institutional Review Board Human Research Protection Program
Gayle DeBord, PhD, is the Interim Director of the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology, as well as co-director of the NIOSH Center for Direct Reading and Sensor Technologies
Mark D. Hoover, PhD, CHP, CIH, is co-director of the NIOSH Center for Direct Reading and Sensor Technologies
Reference and Suggested Reading
Schulte, PA and DeBord, DG (2000) Public Health Assessment of Genetic Information in the Occupational Setting. In: Genetics and Public Health. Khoury, M and Burke, W. ed. Oxford Press, New York City, NY.
Michael K, McNamee A, Michael MG . The emerging ethics of humancentric GPS tracking and monitoring. In: Proceedings of the International Conference on Mobile Business, Copenhagen, Denmark, 25-27. M Business Revisited from Speculation to Reality (pp. 1-15). Piscataway, NJ, USA: IEEE.
- Page last reviewed:November 13, 2019
- Page last updated:November 13, 2019
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