Smart technologies within the workplace to tackle COVID
According to a survey [¹] conducted by Consulting firm McKinsey of some 800, C-suite executives from across a wide range of sectors, COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point and transformed business forever. The pandemic has hastened employer investments in a broad application of technology to maintain productivity and specifically, 85% stating that they had accelerated adoption of digitization for employee interaction and collaboration. They also concluded that some remote work is here to stay, but not for everyone or for every workday, pointing out that more than 60% of U.S. workers, for example, cannot work remotely. Questions are quite rightly being asked by employees and employers alike around how workplaces will be made and kept safe since according to a poll of US employees [²], 54% shared concerns about exposure to the virus in the workplace.
There are some obvious measures such as increased cleaning, changes to working practices and workstation re-layout and the imposition of one-way systems but real people get confused and break rules. It is one thing to hang signs and tape lines or crosses to the floor but do people maintain the confines of their personal space and comply with the rules? This is where technology can help such as: -
- No-touch door entry/exit system. This would control who or how many may enter a particular space and remove potential contamination from touching infected surfaces e.g. a keypad. But this would not discriminate between employees carrying or not carrying the virus.
- Thermal imaging or temperature measurement. This could be used to detect a high temperature (fever) which is one of the three main symptoms. It could be integrated with a door entry system to prevent suspected infection from entering a building, but people may be asymptomatic and skin temperature is not necessarily a true reflection of a raised core body temperature due to fever.
- Monitor localized airflow and humidity. The risk of air conditioning spreading the virus in the workplace is extremely low as long as there is an adequate supply of fresh air and ventilation. Hyperlocal monitoring would require a large network of sensors which may be expensive to install.
- Deploy audio analytics to identify coughing, another of the main symptoms. This would not, however, necessarily discriminate between people with a common cold or identify the individual(s) concerned. There may be some privacy concerns over the potential for surveillance.
But as discussed in an earlier Casella article [³] maintaining social distancing is also a key strategy. So what technology is being considered or adopted to aid social distancing? Before answering that rhetorical question let us just rewind a little.
So-called wearable technology has been touted as a panacea for productivity and health & safety (H&S) improvements for several years but there has been a difficulty in establishing a cost/benefit argument as well as dealing with worker concerns over privacy.
Some of the earliest wearable technology dates back 50-60 years i.e. personal sampling pumps and noise dosimeters but it was not until the advent of such devices with Bluetooth connectivity that they truly could claim the ‘wearable title’.
An unexpected benefit of being able to monitor a deployed pump or noise dosimeter using a smartphone app, originally intended to avoid disturbing the worker, is that the H&S professional can maintain a safe (social) distance while performing their role. Ironically, an unexpected outcome of keeping a 2-metre distance may be a difficulty in communicating face-to-face in a noisy factory environment, which may point to the very ‘noise problem’ that itself requires further investigation.
Launching a call for shared research, the UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) said in early 2019 [⁴], that there was growing evidence that wearable devices could significantly benefit health and safety in the workplace through positioning and sensor technologies. They went on to say that the advancement of the Internet of Things (IoT) has meant that many of these technologies are increasingly being deployed, helping to improve workplace productivity. They identified two priority areas; monitoring occupational personal exposure to hazardous chemical substances & physical hazards on construction sites as well as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in workers identified at greater risk.
So as a direct response to the pandemic, already in-service H&S monitoring products have either been re-purposed or have had functionality added to alert wearers to the proximity of fellow workers. These include personal gas detectors and hand-arm vibration (HAVS) monitors but there are many sectors where there is no requirement for such devices, which therefore requires a more bespoke solution. These include wearable tags and smartphone apps. Tags may be used for ‘peer to peer’ proximity warning but when used with other supporting infrastructure, could provide a real-time location system or contact tracing. In the case that a test confirms an infection, contact tracing can be used to isolate others who may have unwittingly become infected and would be pivotal for a follow up intervention.
Perhaps the use of technology for this pandemic-specific application heralds the paradigm shift to enable mass adoption of a (wearable) platform that can monitor a variety of physical and chemical agents as well as position, posture, vital signs etc? It seems that manufacturers could well be pushing on a technology-receptive, industry door that the pandemic has unexpectedly opened. Technology options for social distancing will be reviewed in a subsequent article.
1. Survey: What 800 executives envision for the post-pandemic workforce, McKinsey, September 23rd, 2020
2. https://www.ehstoday.com/covid19/article/21130371/50-of-us-employees-worry-about- workplace-exposure-to-covid19
3. How to reassure customers and employees returning to work. Casella, Winter 2020.
4. Shared research project: Wearables in the workplace. HSE, 2019