Workplace distancing tech takes off

Workplace safety technologies are protecting against COVID-19 and opening up new revenue streams writes Jason Ford

workplace distancing
Tharsus’ Bump technology consists of wearable and static devices that communicate with one another using active Radio Frequency technology.

One of the  consequences of COVID-19 has been the emergence of technologies that have been adapted or built from scratch to ensure the safety of workers.

The technologies include – and are not restricted to – contact tracing apps on phones and body worn social-distancing systems that warn of encroachment from others.

“We’ve seen a surge in demand for lone worker safety devices,” said Naz Dossa, CEO of Peoplesafe, a provider of lone worker protection services in Britain. “The need to maintain safe social distancing and limit the total number of individuals at indoor locations means that many workers are now classed as ‘lone working’ – either they work entirely alone or out of earshot from colleagues for at least some of their working hours.”

Indeed, a global survey conducted by PwC found that just under a quarter (23 per cent) of chief financial officers were to make support for workforce location tracking and contact tracing their top priority when planning a return to working on site. Interestingly, some of those CFOs might be considering offerings from PwC, which has developed its own suite of COVID mitigation technologies, including an app called CoronaManager that uses ‘Bluetooth handshakes’ and geofencing for contact tracing of those who download it.

The UK-based professional services giant says CoronaManager ‘can keep track of health status, provide data analyses, connect to fever monitoring devices and provide localised and personalised health news. It’s voluntary and anonymous and can help companies minimise any disruption due to COVID-19.’ As well as helping to keep its own workforce safe, PwC may be able to use its solutions, including Check-In and ConTra Contact, to tap into a market estimated by an analyst at IDC to be worth up to £3.25bn in the US alone.

Where possible workers in the UK have been asked to continue working from home, a situation applicable to a proportion of Network Rail’s 40,000 employees but not those whose physical presence is needed to keep rail infrastructure operating. Part of its COVID-19 mitigation strategy has been to successfully pilot Mind the Gap, a social-distancing app developed by Hack Partners, a rail technology start-up based in London’s so-called Silicon Roundabout. Their solution uses ultra-high frequency sounds and Bluetooth to calculate the distance between mobile phones. The app has no user-tracking in place so no sensitive data is collected, stored or shared.

Issues surrounding the use of personal data came into play at Smith+Nephew, a multinational medical equipment manufacturing company based in Watford that tested and is deploying Bump, a social distancing solution from Tharsus, a company more used to developing advanced robotics solutions.

Bump’s technology consists of wearable and static devices that communicate with one another using active Radio Frequency technology. This creates a Personal Motion System that immediately alerts wearers when they are getting too close to another person.

According to Mike Buckle, Director Operations Strategy & Transformation, Smith+Nephew, key factors in Bump’s deployment revolved around ease of use and the use of data.

“You just wear it, charge it and make sure you download the data as you leave work each day, which is [an] easy task as you just have to hold the device near one of the Bump stations,” he said. “We have tested the contact tracing function as part of the pilot, and this is very simple to use and provides fantastic data driven diagnostics.”

He added that Bump uses Bluetooth and UWB [ultrawide band], rather than GPS, which poses concerns for rapid deployment and has GDPR restrictions, particularly in certain regions such as Germany and China.

“We tested other solutions on the market as part of our deployment, they were not as effective from an accuracy perspective, which we feel is very important,” he said. “We want data that we can trust, so if we do have to use the contact tracing element of the device, we want to be able to do so, knowing that the output is accurate, as consequences of this could be either asking too many people to self-isolate, or even worse, not asking enough.”

As a result of the trial and positive response from  employees Smith+Nephew is rolling Bump out across other sites globally, starting at its largest manufacturing sites in Memphis, USA, and Coyol in Costa Rica.