As businesses continue to grapple with the challenges posed in adapting workspaces for safe use during the COVID-19 pandemic, new research shows how a widely available, low-cost technology can help. Dr Veronica Martinez and Dr Mahsa Honary report.
Drawing upon an easy-to-implement digital infrastructure, the Test, Tag and Trace approach developed at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) is already in use in a major bank in Canada, a large multinational pharmaceutical company in Europe and leading meat processor companies in North America.
Carefully implemented and properly communicated to employees, it can help offices to operate safely while the pandemic is still active. When the pandemic is over, the same infrastructure could continue to provide employees with a secure working environment that could be quickly adapted to new circumstances and help minimise future disruption.
Secure and safe
At the core of this project is the secure and safe traceability of users with the support of digital technologies, adapted from our research into using wearables to help treat Leukaemia. The proposed approach encompasses the need for better management of processes which can limit infection spread, including management of employee movements, physical distancing, segmentation of personnel into groups and coordination of sanitisation activities.
The presence of a digital infrastructure helps to minimise the number of infringements by ensuring that the rules are clear and properly explained. This solution provides both employee visibility and privacy, acting as a digital twin when they are at work but conferring invisibility on the employee the moment they leave the site.
How it works
First, each member of staff is tested for COVID-19. Initially, this could be done by taking their temperature, but laboratory testing could be introduced later as it becomes more widely available and turnaround times become faster.
If the test proves negative, the employee will be certified and their available-for-work status uploaded anonymously to a secure database. They are now safe to enter the controlled workspace.
Next, a lightweight Bluetooth tag, roughly the size of a stick of gum attached to an ID badge, swipe card or pocket, will be read by hubs strategically placed at key points around the building or site, and at entrances and exits.
As they move around, each employee’s tag sends a signal to the hubs they encounter, which feed information to a database. Real-time data analytics match employee locations with a set of rules assigned to their role, check that they are in an authorised area at an appropriate time and within the safe limit of number of people for that particular workspace (see Figure 1).
In addition, the employee could also choose to have an app on their phone which warns them if rules have been breached nearby or if there are places they should avoid.
This system is simple, low cost and easy to maintain. Crucially, it works in addition to rather than as a replacement for other COVID-safe strategies, such as controlling occupancy and rapid testing.
As the Bluetooth tag is lightweight and sized to individuals, it is a relatively unobtrusive option.
Location, location, location
Location of staff is a crucial element in protecting the individual, because, invariably, adherence to safety rules will be breached.
For example, a casual movement through a hall from one assigned area to another may result in an innocent courteous exchange between colleagues. If one or the other staff member is found to be infected, the system can identify who else has been exposed.
This is further exacerbated when business activities make defining distancing rules more difficult. Manufacturing, food processing and assembly businesses have a high level of staff interactions that cannot be mapped as well as an insurance or banking office. Therefore, the need for continuous location monitoring of interactions is integral to diagnosing a prospective risk trail.
This is important to track infractions even in situations where social distancing is being maintained, but equally it may not always be possible to maintain self-distancing between all employees.
In this case, it may be more practical to have staff segmented into groups and rules enforced to ensure that different groups of staff don’t mix.
Location determination can ensure that individuals don’t violate the staff segmentation requirements. This is particularly important when considering disinfection of communal areas prior to allowing access for different staff groups.
Why not use an app?
Though most national-level contact tracing apps in use or in development rely on mobile phone apps, they aren’t an ideal solution for workplace management.
First, there are the logistical issues. Every employee would need to have their phone with them at all times and make sure it’s both charged up and switched on. And then there are the privacy issues. Whereas apps designed by national governments are reliant on voluntary adoption (at least in the UK), this isn’t as straightforward in a work setting.
If the mobile phone were to be used as the principal means of location tracing, employees could have legitimate concerns that they would be personally identifiable, that their individual movements could be tracked (both inside and outside work) and that their employer could access confidential information on their phones.
Bluetooth tags, therefore, have a number of clear advantages. They are cheap, simple devices that do not need regular battery charging or a mobile signal to operate. They are always on, continuously pinging their anonymous identifier to the reader and will stop tracking as soon as the tag is out of range.
In other words, they will allow the organisation to monitor the movements of its employees without identifying them individually throughout designated areas of the workplace.
The system is also flexible enough to be extended to other applications. It can be integrated with digital supply chain and inventory management, ‘smart building’ applications that track things like air quality and temperature, and specific internal processes (such as time out of refrigeration for food and drink).
A digital infrastructure for a safe working environment
Governments around the world are setting out operational guidance for businesses preparing for a new way of working.
While these recommendations are rightly informed by expert advice from clinicians, epidemiologists, infectious disease and public health specialists, they have so far ignored the critical role technology could play in making the workplace a safer place for employees.
The digitally-enabled Test, Tag and Trace approach will mean employees and employers can be confident that they will be alerted to any unsafe behaviours, playing a valuable part in building strong procedures and confidence that people can stay safe at work.
This article is based on research from Mahsa Honary and Veronica Martinez, University of Cambridge; Theodore Wlazlowski, System Loco Ltd; Sumi Helal, Lancaster University; Hans-Henning von Oertzen, Westlake Partners; and Souroush Honary, System Loco Ltd, which appeared in the journal Digital Government: Research and Practice, and was supported by the EPSRC New Industrial Systems: OMMS – Optimising Me Manufacturing System research grant [EP/ R022534/1].
More information www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk