Do You Have a False Sense of Security?

Person-worn safety monitoring devices ensure that no emergency incident is ever left undiscovered.

A safety scenario: Gerald arrives at work early one morning. He puts on his hard hat, greets co-worker Angela, and turns on his personal safety monitoring device.

During the second half of his shift, Gerald moves behind a medium-sized piece of industrial equipment so he can take apart a large industrial pump for maintenance. The work floor is a noisy place with a large amount of activity going on in various areas, and although Angela is only steps away from Gerald, she cannot see or hear him. While exerting his body to take apart the pump, a sharp pain passes through one side Gerald’s body, and within seconds he slumps to the ground, unconscious. Time is of the essence now because, according to the American Heart Association, every minute that Gerald goes without defibrillation reduces his chances of survival by 10 percent.

The device Gerald is wearing on his belt detects that he has become inactive. It immediately notifies the floor supervisor by text message, email, and web alert. He sees in which part of the building Gerald is located and runs over to him. Within seconds, Gerald’s unconscious body is found, and a defibrillator is brought in.

A False Sense of Security
Organizations have a variety of choices when it comes to monitoring the safety of their employees. Manual phone-in systems, pagers, radios, so-called "buddy systems," and smartphone monitoring apps have all been adopted by organizations of all sizes. While this is positive in that these products and services indicate a shift in industrial attitudes toward greater safety compliance and duty-of-care, many of these solutions can provide employees and employers with a dangerously false sense of security.

Phone-in systems, most radios, and smartphone applications have several major downsides, with the principal one being potential failure to alert emergency response personnel. In Gerald’s case, his smartphone (which could have been equipped with a safety monitoring app) would have been of no use in that situation. Because Gerald was rendered unconscious, it would be impossible for him to unlock his phone and press the panic button or call for help. Additionally, it could have been up to an hour before his next check-in would have been missed and noticed by management, which the American Heart Association’s statistic indicates would translate into a very high probability of death.

Use of a phone for safety monitoring also carries a trade-off between system effectiveness and workplace productivity. For instance, many companies deploy a check-in system in which employees are required to phone in hourly. If an emergency were to occur at any time in between calling intervals, the emergency could be left undiscovered for up to an hour. The only way to reduce the risk of an undetected emergency is to decrease the length of time between check-ins, thereby reducing time spent working, which may be an unjustifiable cost to the organization.

As a safety tool, smartphones have several shortcomings. Because these devices have multiple functions, the time spent checking in every hour can balloon with employees checking email, text messages, and perhaps the newest Angry Birds game, as well. These same functions of a smartphone also take a toll on its battery. Thus, a safety monitoring app cannot provide reliable, long-lasting coverage over an entire shift without the risk of a power loss. Depending upon the number of check-ins each day and the workforce deployed with these types of systems, thousands of hours of labor can be wasted each year performing a task that could be done instantly using a dedicated device.

As in Gerald's scenario above, employers that deploy buddy systems to improve safety still expose their employees and themselves to unnecessary risk. Sending an additional employee as accompaniment for safety purposes quickly increases labor costs and can result in greater complacency in personnel. Moreover, if an event like the one described above renders both employees injured or incapacitated, response personnel may not be made aware until the next missed check-in or until neither employee returns to home base at the end of their shifts. Gerald’s case demonstrates how having a second person accompany the first still does not guarantee fast and effective safety monitoring.

What You Can Do
While admittedly some organizations have been successful in deploying call-in and/or buddy systems, many have discovered their selected safety monitoring methods were highly fallible when they suffered late discovery of emergencies, missed check-ins (and the associated false alarms), higher operating costs, and even commercial negligence charges.

For this reason, many organizations have elected to make the switch to dedicated person-worn safety monitoring devices. More robust than smartphones and usually containing a suite of automated alerting features (such as fall detection, man-down alerting, automated check-in), these types of products ensure that no emergency incident is ever left undiscovered. Using person-worn safety monitoring devices, employees can automatically or manually notify safety monitoring personnel instantly if an emergency has occurred.

Garrett Genest (ggenest@blacklinegps.com) is the marketing coordinator for Blackline GPS of Calgary, Canada.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 OHS issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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