Back to Work: Wearables Track Social Distancing and Sick Employees in the Workplace

As companies re-open, employees may don wearable tech to prevent the spread of COVID-19

4 min read

Emily Waltz is the power and energy editor at IEEE Spectrum.

Photo of a worker checking a message on the Blackline Safety G7.
Photo: Blackline Safety

As shuttered businesses make plans to resume on-site operations, many plan to outfit their employees with new, anti-pandemic gear: wearable tech that could prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside the workplace.

Ford employees are experimenting with smartwatches that vibrate when workers come within six feet of each other. The accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has developed an app that turns employees’ phones into contact tracing devices, notifying them when they’ve been exposed to a coworker with the novel coronavirus.

Other employers are considering equipping their workforces with wearables—separate from their phones—that are capable of granular on-site and indoor location tracking and contact tracing. CarePredict recently rolled out such devices for senior living facilities.

In fact, in a survey of 871 finance executives at companies in 24 countries, 21 percent said they were eyeing location tracking and contact tracing for their workforces, according to PwC, which conducted the survey and posted it online this week.

These private sector systems are meant for the workplace alone, unlike the digital contact tracing apps developed by Google and Apple, which are intended for the general public under the tutelage of public health authorities.

Workplace contact tracing devices would enable companies to selectively isolate any employees with exposure to COVID-19, allowing the rest of the company to keep working. The devices raise privacy concerns, but they could also make employees feel safer about going to work.

Tech companies nimble enough to have pivoted, in a matter of months, to making this kind of gear have found themselves in high demand.

“The phone is ringing off the hook,” says Sean Stinson, vice president of sales and product development at Blackline Safety. Stinson’s company last week announced that its systems, which monitor industrial worker safety through connected, wearable devices, can now also perform contact tracing and social distance monitoring.

Blackline’s rugged, walkie talkie-sized device, called G7, tracks workers’ movements with GPS and by pinging indoor beacons placed around a workplace, and sends the data to Blackline’s cloud. The on-body devices use accelerometers to detect an accident, such as a fall, or potentially dangerous situation, like a gas leak, and call for help. Oil and gas refineries, water treatment plants, road maintenance companies, and other tough-job employers use Blackline’s systems, Stinson says.

Blackline Safety proximity tracingImage: Blackline Safety

Blackline adapted to COVID-19 by enabling its location tracking systems to generate close contact reports. The datasets show which workers are frequently going near other workers, and where in the workplace that’s occurring. If an employee gets the coronavirus, the company can use the system to review the employee’s location history on-site to find out which coworkers might have been exposed.

“You can pick a person—say me—and in one column you’d see my name, and in the second column you’d see all the people I came into close contact with over the prior two weeks,” says Stinson. “There’s also a map there so we can tell where these interactions are happening.” The maps can display the location information down to the individual person, and can also display company-wide movement, like a heat map, he says.

The data help leadership teams make decisions, Stinson says. “You can get a feel for how your social distancing policies are working,” he says. “You can talk to an individual and ask them to stop being a [potential] super-spreader,” or figure out a way to change that person’s job so that they don’t have to interact with as many people. (As awkward as that sounds, that might be HR’s new normal for the next couple of years.)

Estimote, a location and proximity services provider, also quickly pivoted for the pandemic. The company makes programmable Bluetooth-based beacons for item tracking. Estimote had also recently begun making wearable panic buttons for the hotel industry. Hotels place the company’s beacons in every room, and housekeepers wear a panic button that will ping their location on the nearest beacon, and call for help in the event of an attack.

When the pandemic hit, Estimote adapted its panic button systems to proximity and contact tracing. “We’ve deployed to 25 or 35 companies already,” says Steve Cheney, co-founder of Estimote.

The device comes in three forms: a wristwatch, a pendant or lanyard, and a card shape. When the distance between two employees is too close, or when an employee enters an area that has been deemed off-limits due to COVID-19, the device beeps.

If a worker gets COVID-19, a central manager can run an historical “trace” that lists everyone that person has been in close contact with, and how for long. Estimote is also developing mapping capabilities that will show where interactions are occurring in an aggregated way, such as a heat map.

Tools like those from Estimote and Blackline could give employees more confidence about going back to work. Walking around the office with a beeping device might feel a bit like being a dog with an invisible fence, but at least it will keep that close-talker at bay.

Blackline Safety close contact reportImage: Blackline Safety

But such tools also raise concerns about privacy in the workplace. Building a centralized database of workers’ every move and interaction is akin to giving someone a Marauder’s Map, à la Harry Potter, only with a saved digital history.

The information, in the wrong hands, is sure to stir gossip: John took a really long lunch today. The boss spends far more time with James than with Kate. Celeste and Mark were together on the patio for an hour. Tim from payroll visited the legal team every day last week. Anne went to the vending machine six times yesterday. Joe was in the nursing mother’s room by himself all afternoon.

Cheney at Estimote says that if a customer wants that kind of information, he simply won’t give it to them. “I’m not building that product for them,” says Cheney. “They’d have to email me and I’d be like: ‘No I'm not pulling that,’” he says. “Only when they need to run a trace [on an infected employee] do they get their connections.”

Cheney says that at all other times, the data is anonymized and can be used for the purposes of understanding whether employees are social distancing, and where the trouble spots are on the floor plan. “It’s a product decision,” says Estimote, “And we think it’s probably going to be more successful because of this, not in spite of it.”

Blackline provides its customers more granular information about individual employees’ whereabouts and movements. Stinson says that in working with customers, Blackline helps them craft acceptable use policies for the data, and recommends that only one or two people at a company have access to the centralized information.

“I can’t point to a single case where I’ve had a customer that’s abused the data,” says Stinson, referring to years of deploying non-COVID-19 location tracking products. “It’s in my best interest for the company to make sure my customers don’t misuse data. Ultimately I’d end up with no customers if this becomes a misused technology,” he says.

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