As companies return to work in a COVID-19 world, they face the challenge of resuming “normal” operations while maintaining a safe and protected working environment for all employees. With the proven benefits of social distancing in helping reduce the spread of the virus, companies and government agencies are now seeking ways to implement this practice as their employees return to work. While modifying work environments and mandating worker compliance is a start, providing an automated system that detects when employees get too close is the logical next step to provide a safer work environment and protect employee health.
But what are the requirements of such a system? What functionality should it possess? As RFID Global started receiving inquiries for workplace solutions to address COVID, we developed a list of criteria we believe to be vital to making the technology practical to employ:
- Proximity Detection – The ability to accurately and reliably determine when two or more employees are within 6 feet of each other, from any angle, and issue an alarm to all parties instantly.
- Encounter Reporting – Record these encounters in a centralized database that maintains who had interactions with whom and when. This can be used to identify which employees were in proximity with one another should one later test positive with a viral infection.
- Workplace Analytics – Analyze the encounter data to spot trends and issues that improve workplace health and safety, allowing firms to make spatial and process adjustments.
- Minimally Intrusive – Does not interfere with employees’ job function and protects employee privacy.
- Easy To Deploy – Minimal infrastructure and IT integration, allowing for easy configurability, and changes in workflows and business processes.
Given these parameters, RFID Global stared testing numerous technologies to find the optimal combination for a proximity tracing system. Among those tested were BLE, Mesh, UWB, Active RFID, Passive RFID, LoRa, GPS, Ultrasound, Cellular and WiFi. Most had issues.
- Getting an accurate read of a Social Distance Event (SDE) was a challenge for many technologies. Detecting a device at 6 feet means detecting at 6 feet. Not 5 feet and not 7 feet. Inconsistent alerts can be distracting to employees and may result in employees ignoring the devices because of perceived inaccuracy. BLE, passive RFID, WiFi and LoRa all struggled with this. Most could only detect at 6 feet plus or minus 1-2 feet. Add to this that each employee’s tag could be off by 2 feet and the encounter between the two tags now has a potentially 2+ foot variance, we determined this to be too unreliable.
- Finding a solution that provided 360⁰ coverage also proved to be a challenge. Since the human body is mostly water and water impairs radio waves, most radio technologies had large dead spots in the back when the device was worn on the chest.
- Systems that used data triangulation for measuring distances (BLE, Active RFID, UWB, etc.) could require the implementation of a large beacon or antenna infrastructure to be operational, which was thought to be price prohibitive.
- Data upload was also an issue. Store and forward systems typically require close proximity for download, whether through the use of dedicated cradles or short-range technologies such as NFC. This promotes employees huddling near the upload stations at end of shift – the very activity the system is trying to prevent.
- Other parameters included various issues depending on the form factor: alert types, battery life, certifications, indoor and outdoor operation, wearability, etc.
- Post COVID usefulness. Finally, we factored in how the system could be used after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Does it provide additional uses to the customer such as man-down alerting, broadcast alerts or muster station reporting?
After trialing multiple systems, it was determined that no one technology could do it all. But hybrid systems that utilize one technology for social distance encounter sensing and another for data upload provide the best overall solution.
Therefore, RFID Global offers two versions of its SafeZone360 solution, each suited for different workplace environments, using the following technologies:
- SafeZone360 with an ultrasonic sensor and a mesh network for data upload. This solution is designed to be worn on safety vests and is ideal for factories, warehouses and construction sites. The system is accurate to within 3” from any angle and provides real time data uploads using the workforce’s devices as a mobile network.
- SafeZone360 with point-to-point UWB sensors on wristbands, belt clips or lanyards, which is ideally suited for office and factory environments. This system provides encounter detection at social distance boundaries which is accurate to within 4” and uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) for batch data transmission through strategically located gateways.
Both systems have their place depending on work area requirements and both provide an effective defense against an outbreak of COVID-19 by alerting your workers when they come too close to each other and recording those encounters to enable contact tracing in the workplace if someone were to become ill.
For more information on SafeZone360, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.