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Big data strikes blow for safety in rugby, sport and beyond

Date posted
16 November 2023
Dr Laura Bradshaw
Estimated reading time
3 minute read

As a global audience thrilled to the culmination of Rugby World Cup 2023, fresh light reached the realm of player safety, with concerns setting parallels with OSH principles. But as technology advances on rugby and sport in general, IOSH research expert Dr Laura Bradshaw considers: “Does the new safety tech help or hinder athletes’ wellbeing?”.

High-profile advancements in sports safety, such as the use of innovative mouthguards in rugby and helmet sensors in American football's NFL, are helping the public see just how much innovative technologies and wearables are playing an increasing part of our daily working lives.

These sports stories have helped us draw comparisons with integrated, AI-driven healthcare, such as wearable heat sensors in firefighting, bio-patches tracking sleep cycles in shift workers and health monitoring in emergency workers, for example. We’re all being educated in the safety advantages brought by these emerging technologies.

Yet, there’s an intrusive element to manageable technologies that also needs to be considered when adopting such innovations. This could be rule changes brought in to make sports safer, such as concussion checks and personal monitoring which can, at times, exacerbate psycho-social issues.

Smart mouthguards

Sport is now offering a wealth of technological innovation that is not only revolutionising sport but also has the potential to be adopted across broader occupational settings. Some examples of the crossovers between sport and OSH are especially useful to consider in the way they bring a proactive approach to player safety. Much like the way industries employ OSH standards to pre-emptively avoid accidents, the smart mouthguards being adopted by rugby detect potential threats in real-time, both in training and games.

The Guardian reported how these devices measure the G-force of every head impact, ensuring players are protected against any risk of playing through dangerous head injuries, safeguarding both the short and long-term health of the athlete.

Much like incident responses in traditional workplaces, immediate medical interventions are now happening in rugby. The mouthguards, when detecting dangerous collisions, instantly alert an independent medical professional to ensure players get immediate attention. This safety-first approach aligns with the principles of OSH, emphasising swift action following a potential hazard. The era of the digital athlete is upon us and the 2023 Rugby World Cup wasn't only a battleground of on-field skills but also a demonstration of modern athlete care and wellbeing, where player data is monitored both on and off the field of play.

Athletes wearing digital devices during training sessions and games will help improve their health and wellbeing as they monitor for fatigue, pre-empt injuries and provide data for timely interventions. This new emphasis on the importance of continuous health monitoring is akin to the constant worker health checks made in hazardous industries and sets a precedent for a safety-first approach.

In the broader sporting landscape, emerging technologies are being used to enhance performance, improve athlete well-being, optimise training and nutrition, engage fans, ensure fair play and increase accessibility. These technologies also raise ethical considerations in areas such as performance enhancement.

Safeguarding technology

While technological safeguarding is becoming a focal point within sport, other technological integrations are being used away from the sports field in occupational settings, such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for cognitive training. Biomechanics analysis and data analytics also play a crucial role in shaping strategies, ensuring optimal performance without compromising on safety.

The sporting spectacle of the Rugby World Cup demonstrated how safety principles combined with advancements in technology can safeguard athletes and help improve their health and wellbeing. By taking a cautionary approach, so that data harvesting doesn’t turn into data smog for the athlete, safety tech in sports can be both an aid to individual athletes and a support to teams working to improve athlete health, wellbeing and sporting longevity.

As teams continued to collide in pursuit of the coveted World Cup, for me the underlying narrative was rugby’s commitment to safety. As a worldwide audience tuned in, my hope was that the integration of safety technologies becomes the norm, not just in rugby but across all sports and beyond.

Last updated: 31 January 2024

Dr Laura Bradshaw

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