Ethics and privacy when using sensors in the workplace

06 Mar 2020

Sensors are increasingly used in the workplace. After doing research, TNO has developed infosheets that describe how sensors can be used in workplaces in which (chemical) substances are used. They describe the pros and cons of these and the possible ethical and privacy issues which are raised.

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Sensors offer a lot of possibilities for identifying exposure in the workplace, allowing us to better control this exposure and prevent health-related complaints. But they also collect a lot of data, which often concerns individuals.

Workplace exposure measurements are currently carried out by taking samples from the breathing zone of employees and having these analysed in a laboratory. Following interpretation by an occupational hygienist, feedback is provided to a company as an average exposure value. This is a time-consuming and expensive method which usually only takes a few measurements and gives a general impression of the level of exposure.

Measuring with sensors

In TNO’s opinion, better insights into exposure differences between people doing similar work can be achieved when this is measured using sensors. For example, sensors measure every five seconds, resulting in an exposure profile instead of an average value. This also makes it more obvious which preventive measures must be focused on in order to have the desired effect. In addition, the measurement results from sensors are available immediately, enabling direct action to be taken.

Collecting and sharing data

However, sensors collect data – including data about people. And although this is also the case in the current situation, the new situation is more sensitive as sensor data is more informative. Sensors can be utilised within the space, on machines and on individuals. Depending on the application, the data must be shared with third parties in order to be effective.

For early warning applications, it’s enough to only share the data with the individual concerned. But for an exposure register, for example, the data is stored by name and is shared with third parties. Making the information traceable to organisations and individuals. Many other applications lie somewhere between these two extremes, so it isn’t surprising that people are afraid of the data being misused.

Infosheets about ethical issues

The introduction of sensors in the workplace can therefore have an impact on ethical values, such as health/wellbeing, the right to self-determination, privacy, trust, fairness and responsibility. These values can be influenced both positively and negatively.

More exposure data helps to better control exposure and prevent people from becoming ill (positive). But sensor data also provides information on individual behaviour. This information could also be used, for example, against somebody during a performance appraisal (negative).

For each sensor application, TNO has developed infosheets describing a number of ethical issues that may arise. These infosheets help employers and employees to prepare together for the use of sensors in the workplace.


TNO is investigating the possibilities for sensors in the workplace to achieve more effective prevention. We are convinced of the opportunities and it is our task to show this to the world. But we take the potential ethical and privacy issues that may arise very seriously and are keen to work with interested parties in order to find technical and organisational solutions to these.

Interested in sensors in the workplace?

Please contact Maaike le Feber


Drs. Maaike le Feber

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