Janne Pylväs is an entrepreneur in Finland that is coming at workplace safety from a new angle – inside your clothes

“It’s all in the wrists,” says Janne Pylväs, motioning his arms and hands to mimic lifting heavy equipment. “And it’s not just the cranking and twisting of parts. Even when handling heavy loads, many times the stress is being absorbed in their wrists.”

He’s talking about the rote, day-to-day movements of car mechanics, specifically mechanics at K-Caara, a chain of automotive repair centers in Finland. A few months ago, Pylväs and his tech team at Myontec completed a study with K-Caara to analyze the most physically demanding work postures and stages of mechanics’ work. During the study, a total of ten mechanics from three different K-Caara locations wore Myontec’s smart shirts and shorts, which have motion sensors sewn into them, to measure repetitive movements and positions during tasks like basic servicing and painting of cars. They generated data on the physical loading experienced by mechanics, as well as their micro breaks and recovery, using electrodiagnostic to establish ideal methods of lifting and rest time in order to help maintain and improve the mechanics’ working capacity and wellbeing.

“Fortunately, all forms of loading can be adjusted with the correct work postures and other measures that improve working capacity,” says Pylväs. “We were able to affirm that mechanics can significantly alleviate musculoskeletal loading by interrupting a task or taking a short break and changing work posture.”

Like the water cooler and all-hands meetings, health and safety rights are a mainstay in the workplace. But when it comes to protecting ourselves from the day-to-day rote movement and overexertion that leaves us susceptible to aches, pains, and illness, staying healthy can feel like a moving target. From number-crunching desk jobs to assembly line work in manufacturing facilities, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (think tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome) affects more than 1.7 billion people globally. Promoting a worker’s right to a healthy work environment is one thing, creating that environment with the methods and tools to assess related risks is quite another.

Enter Myontec, a seasoned startup based in Finland that is coming at occupational health from a new angle – inside your clothes. The company, helmed by CEO Pylväs is in the business of wearable technology and is using their smart clothing at job sites to help employers reduce sick leaves and risks of on-the-job injuries.

Originally, the company worked primarily with elite sports clients, but since 2017, Pylväs – an entrepreneur in the Nordic region and cross country skier – has been working to make inroads into occupational health. When it comes to the workplace, safety pays. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) estimates that work-related ill-health and injury is costing the European Union 3.3 % of its GDP, or €476 billion every year. In the US, the National Safety Council reports that work-related injuries and deaths create a total economic cost of $161.5M.

With clients in this new sector that include top car manufacturers and food companies, he and his team of health transformers are helping employers understand biofeedback through the use of electromyography (EMG) that measures muscular activity.

Myontec’s application of EMG is revolutionary, reducing the size, cost, and complexity of this centuries-old technology. Rudimentary EMG experiments were documented as early as the 1790s, demonstrating how electricity could initiate a muscle contraction, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that EMG sensing devices were introduced for scanning muscles. Innovation has been slow-going when it comes to EMG’s clinical applications, and until recently, the technology’s weakness has been its lack of versatility. When you measured muscle activation, traditionally, you had to shave the person’s skin, place conductive gel and bipolar sensors on them, and then run wires.

“When you put clothes on top of all of that, it becomes difficult to move and the data you capture is ruined,” says Pylväs. “This is why you won’t find many companies measuring muscle activation. However, with our technology, we can follow a worker through their day, even if it’s into a walk-in freezer. We can follow athletes through their games, or follow soldiers into the desert. Our tech can go anywhere the body goes. That’s a big difference.”

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Building the Case for Occupational Health

Myontec’s smart clothing measures muscular activity in the upper body and leg muscles. This includes muscle load monitoring and muscle balance to ensure physical strain is evenly distributed between muscle groups to prevent injury. Their built-in algorithms and real-time performance analysis help end users – in this case, employers and employees – understand the feedback in an actionable way, improving health and saving money and time by offering objective data for better decision-making and preventive actions.

“Smart clothing supports data-driven management,” says Benita Björklund, HR Manager at K-Caara. “The results will have an impact on the management of work at garages and help us pay more attention to work schedules and to support job rotation as much as we can. It’s great that modern technology can be harnessed to support our employees’ wellbeing and ergonomics.”

For Atria, one of the leading food companies in Nordic countries, Russia and the Baltic region, Myontec’s innovative analysis spurred efforts to course correct production lines for their meat cutters. Atria invested €36M to overhaul their production processes, only to see a spike in carpal tunnel syndrome and related sick leaves amongst meat cutters. Sheer observation of their environment and practices was not enough to determine causation.

“It was impossible to tell precisely where the load and stress were being absorbed by the meat cutters,” says Pylväs. “Several of Atria’s workers wore our smart clothes and upon analysis of the collected data we were able to determine that even the size of the worker’s cutting knife, the blade, matters.” In this case, Myontec’s analysis revealed that a longer blade would allow workers to spread the physical cutting force across the length of their arm, versus absorbing the entire motion in their wrist, and changing meat preparation was a must. Training on technique over speed was also instituted.

It’s been one year since Atria implemented the recommended changes that came from Myontec’s analysis. Since then, there have been zero new cases of carpal tunnel syndrome and a 2% drop in sick leaves related to the illness, from 9% to 7%. For those that had surgery, rehabilitated and returned to do the same work, none of them have had recurring symptoms.

You Can Lead A Horse To Water…

The primary challenge Pylväs sees amidst the bright future for smart clothes to revolutionize workplace health and wellness is the timeless challenge of change. Implementing enterprise-level change in any organization – even when there’s hard data to support the change – requires a certain willingness to allow runtime for the transition to take effect.

“It takes time to see the benefits,” says Pylväs. “Company leaders have to first be willing to listen to what the data has to tell them, and second, to give time for the change to prove itself.”

Working in their favor, perhaps, is what Pylväs observes as a global shift in workers’ compensation insurance. As companies big and small look to lower their workers’ compensation premium, safety becomes the controllable factor in these efforts. In the US, for example, the risk is rated by occupation and a company’s loss history is compared to the average for their industry to determine what’s called an experience modifier (read: multiplier). Employers can’t control the loss experience of their industry or the rates assigned to their occupational classifications, but they can control how safe their workplace is.

“The cost of sick leaves is absorbed on the company side, so it’s a big driver for employers,” says Pylväs. “Musculoskeletal-related sick leaves in arduous, manual labor occupations are still a risk for both the employee and employer. That’s yelling for new technology.”