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3 workplace wearable worries

Google founder Sergey Brin poses for a portrait wearing Google Glass glasses before the Diane von Furstenberg  Spring/Summer 2013 collection show during New York Fashion WeekGoogle founder Sergey Brin poses for a portrait wearing Google Glass glasses before the Diane von Furstenberg  Spring/Summer 2013 collection show during New York Fashion Week
Google co-founder Sergey Brin Photograph by Carlo Allegri — Reuters

Despite all the tongue wagging over Google co-founder Sergey Brin occasionally choosing to doff his Google Glass(es) in public, it would be tough to find a big business that isn’t studying the technology, especially for applications in field service, manufacturing and logistics.

After all, there could be roughly 130 million devices around our wrists or on our bodies by then. Wearables adoption could rival that of tablet computers. Why not use these “consumer” gadgets to corporate advantage?

The answer to that question isn’t solely tied to how quickly these gadgets mature, of course.

As with other emerging technologies, the pace of adoption will be gated just as much by human resources and corporate security policies as by how quickly features become available. I debated the ethical considerations with Mike Heembrock, vice president and executive specialist with Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. “This is new territory in many cases,” he said. No kidding.

Heembrock’s team is studying how wearables could impact everything from worker’s compensation claims to data breach policy coverage. “You have to weigh the potential for misuse against the value of the initiative,” he said.

Most applications Chubb is studying are still conceptual, but Heembrock cites real evidence of how the technology could help with safety. An example he offers: some real estate companies are starting to supply gadgets to agents who are showing property by themselves to strangers, so they can “call” for help if they’re attacked or find themselves in a threatening situation. The technology can also offer witness.

A use case such as this one sounds logical and beneficial, but here’s the real question: should wearing that device be required or voluntary? The answer makes a difference to both employee and employer. Here are three primary questions to ponder:

  • How will data collected by these devices be accounted for under the company’s data management and protection policy? That includes how to limit network access for gadgets that aren’t in compliance with said policy, much as a company might shut out tablet computers or smartphones—especially outside traditional business hours.
  • How reliable are the “signals”? This is especially true if a device is used for worker safety or healthy purposes, such as detecting toxic chemicals or overexposure to ultraviolet light, the company has to be able to trust the data. Right now, however, there isn’t a third-testing organization handling this task. “It’s the duty of the employer to do due diligence, to make sure the technology delivers in terms of accuracy and consistency,” Heembrock said.
  • Does the potential for distraction outweigh safety benefits? Adding an extra layer of intelligence to environments where workers already wear eyewear or glasses for safety certainly makes sense. But requiring a solar installer or construction worker to wear them on a rooftop presents a very real training obligation for the employer. In that sort of environment, “always on” could be dangerous. “There is an appropriate time, an appropriate way to use everything,” Heembrock said.
  • How is your company dealing with wearable ethics and security? Send feedback to datasheet@heatherclancy.com.

    This item first appeared in the Nov. 25 edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology. Sign up here.

    For more about potential field applications of wearable technology, read:‘Search: How do I punch this rivet hole?’” by Erin Griffith.