Imagine being outfitted with sensors on your hard hats, shoes, and other protective construction gear, all of which are observing the environment around you. Imagine if these wearable sensors could also alert you if the jobsite becomes unsafe. Sound a bit futuristic? While wearable technologies are still emerging and finding a place in the construction market, these sensors and devices have a bright future.

A report from IMS Research, www.imsresearch.com, Wellingborough, England, suggests 170 million wearable devices will be shipped in 2016. Wearable technology, initially becoming fashionable among consumers, is quickly spreading to the business world as well.

What exactly is wearable technology? This is when sensors and other intelligent devices are embedded into items such as hats, watches, glasses, shirts, socks, and more. With the technology, the clothing is equipped to provide information about your body or the surrounding environment. Google Glass is an example of a wearable technology, although this is really just the beginning for the potential in the construction industry.

The Virginia Tech College of Engineering, www.eng.vt.edu, Blacksburg, Va., has a long-term vision for wearable technology in construction, which includes having a network of environmental sensors and intelligent personal protective gear on construction sites that will improve safety for workers. The first development in this venture is a construction helmet with a sensor that can detect the onset of carbon monoxide poisoning, which is a concern in residential and industrial settings as the exhaust from gasoline-powered hand tools can quickly build up in enclosed spaces.

Researchers at the university integrated a pulse oximetry into a typical construction helmet, which continuously monitors workers’ blood gas saturation levels. Feasibility of the hard hat was tested by using a prototype to monitor the blood oxygen saturation on 10 participating Virginia Tech students. By monitoring oxygen, rather than carbon monoxide, the study was able to be prove feasible without subjecting the users to dangerous conditions.

The research paper, titled Feasibility of Intelligent Monitoring of Construction Workers for Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, is being presented and given an award at the 2013 Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Conference, which took place this week.

This helmet is just the beginning for wearable technologies in construction. The report suggests while the helmet targets carbon monoxide poisoning, other opportunities exist for wearable computing. This includes the ability to reduce injuries due to falls, electrocution, and particulate inhalation. The report even suggests this technology could one day prevent workers from being struck by vehicles.

As research on this technology continues, the construction industry could see an influx of other types of wearable technology in the coming years, as sensors can provide much needed safety data to workers.