Making Space for Smart Wearables

Making Space for Smart Wearables

The smarter path to social distancing.

Workers and businesses have never been more aware of the need for positive occupational hygiene culture than they are as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge business owners now face as they reopen the workplace is balancing worker health, employee concerns and legal and legislative responsibility around operating a “COVID-19 secure” workplace.

A key means of protecting people against exposure, in workplaces and in the wider world, has been in ensuring social distancing–remaining 2m apart or 1m with extra precautions in place.1 Research shows that areas in the United States that do not adhere to any social distancing policies, face 35 times more coronavirus cases.2

Although staying safe by keeping space will prove challenging for workplaces where floor plans are designed for efficiency, businesses can turn to smart wearables to help maintain productivity, save money and ultimately, lives.

The Smarter Path to Social Distancing

There have been many smart wearable technological developments in the health and safety industry over the years, from lone worker monitoring to hard hat proximity sensors. Protection from occupational hazards has been getting smarter, faster and more economical. As COVID-19 raised new issues and standards, businesses determined to operate or return to the workplace safely. Innovators have risen to the challenge of developing social distancing (proximity) technology.

Social distancing that reduces interaction by fifty percent can cut the chances of spreading the virus in half.3 Several in-service health and safety monitoring products such as gas detectors and hand-arm vibration monitors have been re-purposed to alert wearers when in close proximity to fellow workers. Not all staff wear this equipment, however, and there are many sectors where there is no requirement for such monitoring devices, resulting in a need for new, bespoke solutions. As various organizations have sought to fill the market gap, there is an inevitable learning curve for businesses seeking to select and adopt the right solution that will keep their workforce protected.

Bridging the Social Distancing Technology Knowledge Gap

Understanding the advantages and pitfalls of different social distancing technology features, from data storage to contact tracing capabilities, can quicken the path to compliance and an organization's ability to take a tailored, 'best practice' approach to opening its doors to business.

Key features to look out for include:

*Choosing a social distancing tag that uses Ultra-Wideband Technology to ensure accuracy at least fifty times greater than Bluetooth and avoid interference with other devices

*COVID-19 infection risk is a product of both distance and the amount of time a person spends too close to another. Selecting a social distancing tag that stores and analyses both the interaction time and distance will provide a more comprehensive view of transmission risk

*A tag with analytical features will ensure that any data stored can be transformed into informative, visual maps and risk percentages for individuals, enabling data-driven action to be taken

*Looking for a tag that ensures data is General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliant and is not stored beyond fourteen days, will provide more than enough time to account for viral transmission and incubation times while mitigating wearer privacy concerns

Ultra-Wideband Technology (UWT)

Choosing a social distancing tag that uses UWT, a wireless technology recognized for its use in high-accuracy localization applications, will ensure accuracy at least fifty times greater than Bluetooth technology. UWB transmits data in a sequence of short pulses and uniquely measures ‘time of flight’ between the sender and the receiver. Bluetooth, by contrast, generally measures the signal strength and converts that signal strength into a distance estimate, resulting in a significantly less reliable measure. Bluetooth technology is also susceptible to indoor effects, meaning its signal strength varies when moving around in indoor spaces.

Many of the health and safety monitoring products that have been re-purposed to incorporate social distancing alerts use Bluetooth technology. Although this has accelerated market entry, it compromises accuracy. Measurement accuracy is not only key for keeping wearers safe but will also eliminate or severely reduce the number of false alerts caused by imprecise distance measurement. Choosing a tag that uses UWT will allow distance changes to be monitored in real-time, meaning instant, accurate alerts can be sent to the wearer when the social distancing limit is breached.

UWB does not consume a lot of power, making it ideal for wearable technology and ensuring it will not run out of charge during the working day. It is often the case that the safe distance is configurable, allowing organizations to consider local guidance or its own workplaces’ best practice policies.

Data Measurement

Over one third of employees are concerned about having too many people in the workplace at once.4

Some social distancing tags only measure the distance between the individuals wearing them, meaning the wearers will only receive an alert when the configured social distance is breached. This feature alone is ideal if the sole-purpose of the technology is to keep people apart, however, infection risk is a product of both distance and the amount of time a person spends too close to another person. Selecting a social distancing tag that stores and analyses both the interaction time and distance will provide a more comprehensive view of the transmission risk and allow for actionable insights that can reduce employee anxiety. The ability to consider and act upon data relating to time and proximity can also mean that if an infection spreads in the workplace, it will only affect those with significant risk rather than the entire workforce.

Analysis and Insights

There is a data analysis benefit where a social distancing tag is measuring the amount of time and distance that it is in proximity to other tags. For large organizations, this process will need to be automated to avoid hours spent finding, filing and re-keying mountains of statistics. Tags equipped with the right wireless technology and algorithm-based analytical capabilities will be able to do this automatically and provide meaningful results that can be used to base decisions on an individual’s infection risk.

Looking for a tag with analytical features will ensure that any data stored can be transformed into informative, visual maps and risk percentages for individuals. Armed with the knowledge of high and low-risk workers, employers will be able to manage the situation effectively, for example, by rearranging a workplace, putting up dividers, staggering break times or simply opening the conversation to those involved to see how their safety can be improved.

There are social distancing tag systems with sophisticated software, giving detailed risk analysis, so if a worker becomes infected, it may not mean isolating the entire workforce. This can offer significant financial benefits and a substantial return on investment.

Privacy

Although social distancing tags are not storing audio or video footage, individuals wearing social distancing tags may have understandable privacy concerns. Looking for a tag that ensures data is GDPR compliant and does not keep for a longer period than necessary can mitigate these fears. A tag should only hold data for a maximum period of fourteen days, providing more than enough time to account for viral transmission and incubation times.

Future Use

Nearly 90 percent of Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) professionals feel technology is essential or valuable to EHS management success.5 While the value behind social distancing systems is obvious now, its longer-term benefit after the pandemic may be less clear. Choosing social distancing tags that can be adapted with additional infrastructure, typically wall mounted devices, can ensure future use cases in the form of Real-Time Location Systems. RTLS can track the indoor location of people and equipment in real time, meaning people can be excluded from certain zones, which can be a huge benefit for safety and security. In addition, social distancing tags can be used to keep people away from hazards such as moving vehicles, which can reduce risk within a workplace.

The possibilities extend to productivity and lean manufacturing. RTLS can enhance an organization’s top-down understanding of everything happening in its manufacturing outfit, for example, by allowing the most time-consuming tasks for employees to be identified, or by recognizing poorly optimized manufacturing floor layouts that can be adapted to make a lean operation even more efficient. Quantifying these potential cost savings can justify a modest investment in a social distancing system and allow for continuous operational improvements.

In the post-pandemic workplace, ensuring a safe working environment while establishing a ‘new normal’ is paramount. This means maintaining social distancing, implementing policies and procedures and limiting the possibility of exposure to the virus. Social distancing technology with actionable, data-driven insights can improve productivity, save money and, ultimately, lives.

This article originally appeared in the May 1, 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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