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Startups are targeting businesses with a new wave of smart wearable devices.

While touring a warehouse in New Jersey earlier this year, Haytham Elhawary had the opportunity to see just how demanding--and potentially dangerous--was the job of workers loading and unloading heavy boxes for hours at a time. "They're expected to perform like athletes—with no training," he says.  The experience was an eye opener.  And as Elhawary, a mechanical engineer who was working as the director of a hardware startup incubator at City University of New York, did more research, he learned that companies pay as much as $45,000 in total costs for every worker with a job-related back injury.

Last summer, Elhawary left his job to run his own startup full-time. Called One Million Metrics (1MM), the New York City company uses wearable and Internet of Everything (IoE)  technology  to monitor and analyze worker's  lifting posture and let them, and supervisors, know when their  position becomes unsafe.  The best part of his business model, for Elhawary: While a host of companies recently have launched wearable products aimed at consumers, tracking such information as their fitness level, 1MM targets employers trying to address a specific and costly issue they face regularly.

"This isn't a nice to have," he says. "We're solving a real problem businesses lack a solution for."

The market for such smart wearable devices as wristwatches and glasses, which use sensors and wireless technology to transmit a host of data, has mushroomed recently.  Global retail revenue will triple in volume by 2016 before eventually reaching $53.2 billion in sales by 2019, according to market researcher Juniper Research in its new report, Smart Wearable Devices: Fitness, Glasses, Watches, Multimedia, Clothing, Jewelry, Healthcare & Enterprise 2014-2019.

But while the first wave of wearables focused on consumers, the next phase of products is aimed at helping businesses to solve a variety of costly problems, from  poor posture that can lead to injury, to loading the wrong product on a truck, according to industry experts. "More advanced wearables will be developed first for enterprise and healthcare applications, as these segments have clear use cases that technology can solve," says Nitin Bhas, head of research at Juniper.

See Also: Wearable Robotics Technology Steps Forward

Certainly, that's the case with 1MM. According to Elhawary, a common factor causing back injuries among warehouse workers is fatigue. His device has sensors that measure individuals' speed of motion and how much they're bending their backs. The data, stored in the cloud, can be analyzed by managers to evaluate the level of exposure to risk among their workforce. Then they can, for example, determine appropriate changes  in their training program or revise the safety measures used for certain activities.  Workers can also receive feedback on their posture with recommendations in cases where they‘re at risk.                                                                                                                         

Augmate, another startup in New York City, which focuses on smart eyewear, takes a different approach. It has a software development kit for creating wearable applications, working with customers to analyze their work systems and identify where a device can be introduced. "We found the most need in the supply chain, from product creation to product sales," says Pete Wassell, co-founder and CEO. 

For now it also is developing applications to prove the viability of its system.  Example: optical bar code scanning built into eyewear that can prevent workers in a fulfillment center from, say, loading the wrong wheels for a baby carriage onto a truck.  Up to 9% of faulty shipments result from choosing the incorrect item, according to Wassell.

Other companies are concentrating on still more pieces of the puzzle. Take Vancouver-based Vandrico. It has a software platform allowing companies to integrate their IT systems with a variety of wearable devices, pushing timely information to frontline workers in a way that ensures it will be acted on immediately. Monitoring systems can send information detected from a wearable device to supervisors who would then alert the appropriate worker about the situation. Because those directions are conveyed to a wearable, rather than a mobile phone, employees with cumbersome gloves can receive--and act on-- the instructions as soon as they're sent. 

"Consumers buy these devices because it's cool," says co-founder Kenny MacKenzie. "But businesses don't care about that. They want a return on their investment."

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About Anne Field

Anne Field has covered entrepreneurship and small business for the New York Times and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.