Wearable Sensors: An Ethical Framework for Decision-Making

Posted on by Angela Morley, JD, MPH; Gayle DeBord, PhD; and Mark D. Hoover, PhD, CHP, CIH

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
  • Fairness
  • 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 [2006]. 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.

Posted on by Angela Morley, JD, MPH; Gayle DeBord, PhD; and Mark D. Hoover, PhD, CHP, CIH

10 comments on “Wearable Sensors: An Ethical Framework for Decision-Making”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Full disclosure prior to recording or intruding in any way is lawful. Considerations of breech of 2nd/3rd hand confidentiality are critical based on incompetence on the digital front

    Thank you for affirming the importance of obtaining informed consent and addressing issues of disclosure prior to any monitoring program. Disclosure should include a description of the privacy protections that must be observed by any parties who will have access to the data that are collected.

    NIOSH didn’t develop the PDM, a company whose name escapes me did; who was then acquired by Thermo Fisher. NIOSH paid the bills, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

    We certainly believe in making sure that credit is given where credit is due. Here is a quick history of the research and development that brought about the personal dust monitor (PDM). As you noted, the PDM, which is a sampling device developed for measuring the personal exposure to coal mine dust of mine workers, is based on a proprietary technology known as the tapered element oscillating microbalance (TEOM) originally developed as a fixed-site environmental particulate mass monitor by Rupprecht and Patashnick Co., Inc., Albany, NY (https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/works/coversheet74.html. NIOSH was very pleased to be able to work with R&P and its successor company, Thermo Fisher Scientific, as well as with labor unions, employers, and government partners to adapt that existing, larger technology into a smaller sampling device that could be safely worn underground. This collaborative process involved testing many versions along the way, and consulting on the ways the technology could be improved, streamlined, and made more practical for mine workers. We see this as a great labor, government, and industry partnership success story.

    NIOSH scientists have developed some cool technologies, but PDM is not one of them. Blanston is right. It was developed by R&P, funded by NIOSH. Supporting development is not same as inventing it.

    Please see our response to the Blanston comment below. Additional information on the partnerships role in developing the PDM can be found in the Report of Investigations: Laboratory and Field Performance of a Continuously Measuring Personal Respirable Dust Monitor https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docket/archive/pdfs/niosh-084/0084-090106-report.pdf and the Report of Investigations: Performance of a New Personal Respirable Dust Monitor for Mine Use https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/UserFiles/works/pdfs/ri9663.pdf

    Hi and thank you for providing this information and the ability to comment. I operate a sensor company that provides air quality sensors. We are working on a wearable version as well.

    The ethics of wearable sensors, no matter what they do, need to be addressed. Obviously wearable sensors will provide information on individuals and that information in the wrong hands can be a huge invasion of privacy. I think studying the ethics and morals of wearable sensing is very important. Protecting the privacy of individuals has to be weighed against data. Additionally, security is a major concern. I’m glad this is open for discussion and there are thoughtful people interested in this.

    Additionally with cloud-based computing and ever-increasing computing power, there will be more intense benefits and drawbacks to wearable sensing. Let’s keep the discussion going!

    Skip Sanzeri

    We very much appreciate the sensor-vendor-perspective provided by the commenter in support of the ethics-for-sensors discussion. The observation that cloud computing will provide both benefits for increased abilities to collect and share data as well as challenges for increased needs to protect personal information is certainly a key consideration. We also note the important role that sensor providers play in helping potential users become aware of and navigate the ethics-related steps to the sensor applications lifecycle. Additional comments and sharing of experience from that perspective are most welcome.

    Gas sensors are sensing devices that are used to detect presence of a particular gas in a given area. These devices measure and indicate the concentration of certain gases in given air through different technologies. Some of the most popular gas sensor technologies include electrochemical, catalytic, semiconductor, solid-state/metal oxide semiconductor (MOS), infrared and others. Typically,gas sensors are deployed to prevent exposure to toxic and fire.Thus, industrial manufacturing, oil & gas, chemical processing are the largest consumers for gas sensors.

    Gas sensors are manufactured as portable (mobile) as well as stationary (fixed) units, and hence can be easily deployed on desired locations.Gas sensors notify increase in concentration of gases through audible or visible indicators such as sound alarms, lights or combination. Gas sensors are usually designed to detect a specific gas. Nevertheless, over the period of time, multi-gas sensing devices have come into existence that are designed for detecting several gases at a time. Due to continued efforts for developing advanced and compact gas sensors, the market is estimated to witness steady growth in the coming years.

    The most significant factor fueling the gas sensors market is the ever-rising expansion of industrial sector worldwide. Due to rising number of oil & gas and chemical processing plants, the demand for gas sensors is estimated to remain strong throughout the forecast period. In addition, rising automotive industry worldwide is another major factor fueling the market growth. Increasing environmental concerns regarding air quality is expected to significantly bolster the market growth during the forecast period.

    Data security cannot be overstated these days, especially when personal identifiable information is used in any context of this kind of technology. Many of us have witnessed this on a personal (consumer) level when data breaches put our personal information in the hands of someone with other interests in mind. Where this type of breach can also be without malice (unintentional disclosure), it still points to the very real issue of data acquisition and security risk. In such planning phases, it should be a customary assessment to include local legal counsel familiar with jurisdictional law that can speak to the risk assumed by such technology when controlling the data it has been designed to capture. Some excellent points made in your article, thank you!

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments posted become a part of the public domain, and users are responsible for their comments. This is a moderated site and your comments will be reviewed before they are posted. Read more about our comment policy »

Page last reviewed: August 18, 2020
Page last updated: August 18, 2020