Last reviewed 17 November 2020

Many companies have developed advanced digital business strategies at record speed during 2020. In parallel, tech-driven health and safety tools addressing a wide range of future risks have also made their way swiftly into the workplace. Jon Herbert reports.

2020 has been the year of remote working. However, not all employees can do their jobs at a distance. Many hands-on tasks cannot be performed via the internet, Zoom or Skype.

Fortunately, new solutions are available, many as coincidental expansions of technologies that have already done much to improve productivity, cut costs, save time and reduce risks across industry.

Gloves, masks and hand sanitisers are now commonplace for employees who have to be physically present. However, social distancing often means fewer workers operating safely on a given shift, which can jeopardise commercial viability. Even when infection rates fall, going back to business as usual is unlikely to be an option. This is where digital solutions are increasingly coming to the rescue.

Hundreds of monitoring technology variations are being developed to help safeguard workplaces. They range from foot-operated bins or doors, through sensors that stop doors being opened if high body temperatures are detected, to more complex solutions leveraging mobile phones and devices, big online databases, standard computers and machine learning advances.

Some standalone tactical sensors are designed, for example, to make staff aware when rooms ― and toilet facilities ― have been used and become vacant. This can help cleaning staff and janitors.

Among innovations developed by US multinational GM is a new Touchless Print smartphone app for employees to print documents without touching office printers or control panels. GM says touchless printing is a “first step”. Its engineers are working on “using technology to make other daily activities more hands-free”.

Others integrate multiple systems and updated databases to raise overall situational awareness, a concept sometimes defined as “understanding what is going on all around us”.

Monitoring technologies

Particularly important is the remote monitoring of assets and processes, often in critical supply chains. Staff can now be told in real-time whether an item is out of stock, or if work is delayed for safety reasons. Again, this can also apply to the general office environment, or specific room use.

In the same way, access at a distance to essential documentation can help to reduce the need for face-to-face interaction when technical details need to be discussed or exchanged.

Going a step further still, many different devices and machinery can be integrated on IOT (Internet of Things) platforms where small sensors read remotely can lead to swifter monitoring, control, inspection and diagnostic analysis. Human contacts remain in the loop, but from home or mobile locations, via phones, tablets or laptops.

This moves onto Industry 4.0 territory, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and ongoing automation of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices with modern smart technology.

Construction site and warehouse staff

Many employees in certain sectors are still working in potentially close proximity. Rather than simply cutting staff roster numbers per shift to reduce unintended contacts, individual employees can now carry tags that use communication technologies. These include BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy), a low power wireless communication system over short distances to smart devices; RFID (radio-frequency identification) using tiny radio transponders, radio receivers and transmitters; and UWB (ultra wideband) which operates at very high frequencies.

Mounted on a hard-hat, wristband or lanyard, these can be programmed to give visual or audio warnings as employees concentrating on their work approach each other, such as progressively louder sounds that culminate in a final warning when proximity limits are reached. The crew of the TV show I’m a Celebrity are just one example of the teams that have been issued with these proximity sensors.

Data storage and recovery

The further advantage here is that vital information can be stored and retrieved. A record of the time, shift duration and location of individual staff members may be useful subsequently if a track and trace situation arises where contacts must be followed up rapidly after a suspected infection.

On a very practical level, as mentioned, handheld readers can use sensors to tell cleaners when an occupied space has been vacated… and how long ago. Another option is thermal imaging sensors that similarly give an early warning if, say, toilet facilities are in use. Heat sensors can also create an accurate record of what parts of buildings are most used.

Given that cleaning and janitorial services are traditionally performed outside “normal” office hours, this may add a level of safety and reassurance when staff work alone.

Virtual barriers

Within larger plants and sites, localised geofencing can create virtual boundaries around real-world geographical areas. These can also be detected with hand-held devices. Linked to IoT, this now well-established technology can effectively zone off physical workspaces.

By zoning off particular areas for particular groups of staff, and organising employees into teams that always work together, the risk of cross-infection may be reduced even further.

Again, because the data can be stored and recovered, any unauthorised entry between shifts can be spotted and investigated quickly. The sophistication of the technology also means that multiple shifts can be staggered, rather than falling back onto a simple two or three shift system.

Holistic view

Advanced solutions are being designed that provide not only immediate protection but can also be used to identify other risks.

Take, for example, a cloud-based system linked to visual analytics, which analyses ordinary video camera feeds, raising the alarm if workers fail to wear the right safety equipment, or break distancing rules. Thermal cameras can also be used to detect unusually high body temperatures — and will also identify fires.

Mobile phone technology can be used to send real-time alerts if social distancing rules are broken. It can also track body temperature readings every few hours — with the added advantage of fast contact tracing of employees in close proximity to an infected colleague.

Wearable devices ― wristbands or smart ID cards — can vibrate when distancing rules are breached and send data to the cloud. This has the advantage of pinpointing recurring problem patterns, such as factory layout constraints or bottlenecks.

Tech solutions can be low-carbon

Shell is turning to drones, robots and augmented reality to minimise the movement of people. It recently used a remote-controlled vessel running on solar power to inspect the Ormen Lange gas field 100km from land in the Norwegian Sea.

A crew would have normally gone to sea in an adapted fishing trawler to collect data from seabed sensors. Instead, the work was carried out from a kitchen table and spare room in Dublin and Carlingford in County Louth. Data then went to Houston, Texas at the click of a computer mouse.

In March, Shell used a crawler robot for an automated ultrasonic scan of a tank roof. This was able to gather 1000 times more roof thickness measurements 10 times faster than a human inspector, who was able to stay at home and avoid working at height risks. Specialist drones are also being used to inspect inside tight spaces.

“You still need humans,” a spokesman said. “You just use their expertise more effectively.” Less travel means less carbon.

Conclusion

The Covid-19 emergency has seen the development of many tech, digital and online tools and services that, in many cases, have built rapidly on advanced technologies and trends already being created, tried and tested across many sectors to contain conventional health and safety risks.

Some offer simple standalone solutions that directly or through sensors allow operatives to detect and minimise real-time risks. Others use integrated systems to monitor remote assets and staff, create virtual barriers, issue proximity warnings, and store retrievable data for track and trace systems.