IoT is the Key to Reopening Safe Workplaces


When the pandemic began in 2020, schools, stores, businesses, and even country borders around the world closed their doors. But, something special happened in the Internet of Things (IoT) universe. We saw IoT companies getting creative with using connected technology to help organizations not only address COVID-19 challenges, but emerge stronger as a result.

Many businesses are still finding ways to recover from the pandemic. Industrial sectors are rethinking how they conduct routine activities to reduce touchpoints, from signing in at the worksite to tracking time. Distribution centers are evaluating their preparedness to respond to the ongoing pandemic, strengthening their contract tracing abilities. Retail and food service establishments are implementing new ways to ensure that consumer and staff safety is their top priority. At the same time, many employees are fearful of returning to work, with concerns about air quality, density and the cleanliness of shared workspaces.

While vaccination rates have recently increased, they vary dramatically across countries, which will extend the impact and slow the global recovery from the pandemic. According to a Bloomberg database of COVID-19 shots around the world, with 119 million doses administered as of the beginning of February, it will take seven years to inoculate 75% of the global population with a two-dose vaccine.

Employers focusing on risk management and mitigation are turning to IoT technology. In fact, a recent IoT report of 1,639 companies revealed 84% of IoT adopters felt IoT is a key factor in maintaining business continuity throughout the pandemic. Leveraging IoT to address and combat COVID-19 is more than smart business for safe and secure workplaces. Serious consequences result from not following new COVID-19 regulations.

For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency inside the United States Department of Labor, regulates workplace safety in the US. COVID-19 is considered a recordable illness for all employers covered by OSHA’s record-keeping regulations. Workplaces must report cases of the coronavirus if they are work-related and involve one or more of the general recording criteria, such as requiring medical treatment beyond first aid or days away from work. OSHA also requires employers to keep workplaces free from known hazards — including coronavirus-related dangers.

The global workplace safety market is expected to grow from $12.1 billion in 2020 to $19.9 billion by 2025, according to forecasts by ResearchAndMarkets. Enterprises cannot eliminate the possibility of a person with COVID-19 entering a facility, but they can take precautions to mitigate infection risk and protect the health of workers as businesses reopen. The following are examples of cellular IoT solutions that can be deployed simply and quickly to enable smart safety and health practices while protecting employee privacy.

Proximity Awareness

Due to its easy distribution and cost-effectiveness, utilizing wearables with smart sensors allows employers to accurately pinpoint which workers have been closer than six feet to an infected individual. These devices can also encourage social distancing by safely alerting workers when they are within six feet, or the recommended distance, from a co-worker in their work environment. This technology is being utilized as an “unofficial” insurance policy.

Safeteams developed The Clip, a battery-powered device that can easily be worn by employees. The device emits a visual cue to warn workers if they are not maintaining a safe distance from one another. Additionally, Safeteams’ platform facilitates the analysis of propagation risk data and trends, such as the rate of interactions between groups and the traffic frequency of specific zones, to proactively adjust working procedures and policies that increase safety. With an incredible three-month product launch time amidst the pandemic, Safeteams became one of the first to market with an IoT-powered contact tracing solution.

Contact Tracing

IoT-powered wearables facilitate early detection and enable the quarantining of colleagues who have come in contact with a co-worker who has tested positive for COVID-19. Armed with this location information, businesses can isolate exposed areas, instead of closing down their business. This is particularly important to distribution centers, processing plants, and manufacturing facilities where closing an entire facility can be devastating to business and the economy.

Rapid and extensive contact tracing solutions such as BlueCats’ SafetyTags offer a plug-and-play system that provides accurate, real-time tag-to-tag relationship data. Its use is restricted to the jobsite and protects employee privacy. Trace report data is recovered from the cloud only when an incident occurs. For instance, a construction firm customer of BlueCats recently had a situation where an employee tested positive. Within minutes, the firm was able to determine who had been in contact with that individual and quarantine only those individuals. This stopped the spread on the jobsite and avoided the shutdown of the entire project. Estimote has also developed safety wearables in a variety of form factors that identify the specific locations where infected employees have been and generate map safe and pre-authorized zones.

There are strong indications that governments will require basic contact tracing as a new long-term workplace standard. The State of Virginia has already put such standards in place, and it’s anticipated that many more U.S. states will likely follow.

Indoor Air Quality Control

Growing evidence indicates that the COVID-19 remains airborne in indoor environments for hours, potentially increasing in concentration over time. Research shows the survival of the coronavirus via aerosol particles in an indoor environment appears to be strongly influenced by relative humidity. Without adequate precautions, the longer spaces such as offices, hospitals, retail shops and restaurants are occupied without proper ventilation and purification, the greater the potential for airborne transmission of the virus.

IoT sensors can play a pivotal role in safeguarding indoor spaces by collecting actionable data, including CO2, temperature and humidity levels in real time. Technology visionary Airthinx has developed an automated air quality control system to continuously detect, display and effectively remediate issues through integrations with third party HVAC and purification systems. As a result, employers, workers and consumers can access critical air quality display data and be confident that facilities are maintaining the necessary levels to reduce risks of the airborne spread of infectious diseases.

Facility Hygiene and Density Tracking

By implementing IoT connected devices for predictive cleaning, building managers can improve the overall efficiency and cleanliness of shared spaces. For example, IoT sensors can notify facility managers when soap dispensers and towels are running low so they can replace them immediately without a manual check. Predictive cleaning can lower infection rates and costs by enabling on-demand and as-needed cleaning to ensure common areas such as restrooms and conference rooms are safe for employees to use.

Freespace created a Cleanreader solution that works by using sensors to collect occupancy data. It provides facility managers and cleaning staff with the data they need to ensure that desks, meeting rooms and communal areas are cleaned and disinfected between users.

Safety and Security for All

Our expectation as workers and consumers has reached a new baseline. We want to be able to see what businesses are doing to be safe and to know they are addressing how to avoid future impacts of this pandemic or any future major health crisis.

Clearly, workers are concerned about the safety of their work environments. OSHA data shows more than 60,000 COVID-19-related complaints have been filed to the agency’s state and federal offices, as of March 28, 2021.

Essential workers in the US, including healthcare, food service and transportation, make up 39% of our workforce, according to the United Way. The frontline environments have especially shown just how fast COVID can spread. Implementing innovative IoT technology will significantly and immediately impact safety.

Regardless of sector, we are seeing that traceability and visibility are becoming the new standards for reopening. For businesses, this represents a financial investment – from planning and selecting technology solutions to implementing, training and overall adoption. Businesses need to know that investments they are making today in response to the pandemic can be cost-effectively and easily deployed. Furthermore, many of the technologies being used to reopen workplaces today can be extended into a post-COVID-19 world to advance worker safety in dangerous work environments or in the event of a future health crisis.

The use of wireless, cellular connected IoT devices is leading the way – allowing secure, plug-and-play deployments that don’t interfere with existing IT infrastructures. Now is the time to quickly transition into a new paradigm where fast and accurate data will save business revenue and save lives.

About the author: Elizabeth Grossenbacher is the Senior Product Marketing Manager for Twilio IoT and host of the “Emerging Stronger with IoT” webinar series. Elizabeth works closely with IoT customers to understand and share their impact on the world. Prior to Twilio, Elizabeth launched dozens of products and programs at various high tech organizations, consulted for Fortune 500 companies at Gartner, and served as an IoT subject matter expert for strategy projects.

Edited by Erik Linask

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