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According to a survey [¹] conducted by Consulting firm McKinsey of some 800, C-suite executives from across a wide range of sectors, COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point and transformed business forever. The pandemic has hastened employer investments in a broad application of technology to maintain productivity and specifically, 85% stating that they had accelerated adoption of digitization for employee interaction and collaboration. They also concluded that some remote work is here to stay, but not for everyone or for every workday, pointing out that more than 60% of U.S. workers, for example, cannot work remotely. Questions are quite rightly being asked by employees and employers alike around how workplaces will be made and kept safe since according to a poll of US employees [²], 54% shared concerns about exposure to the virus in the workplace.
There are some obvious measures such as increased cleaning, changes to working practices and workstation re-layout and the imposition of one-way systems but real people get confused and break rules. It is one thing to hang signs and tape lines or crosses to the floor but do people maintain the confines of their personal space and comply with the rules? This is where technology can help such as: -
- No-touch door entry/exit system. This would control who or how many may enter a particular space and remove potential contamination from touching infected surfaces e.g. a keypad. But this would not discriminate between employees carrying or not carrying the virus.
- Thermal imaging or temperature measurement. This could be used to detect a high temperature (fever) which is one of the three main symptoms. It could be integrated with a door entry system to prevent suspected infection from entering a building, but people may be asymptomatic and skin temperature is not necessarily a true reflection of a raised core body temperature due to fever.
- Monitor localized airflow and humidity. The risk of air conditioning spreading the virus in the workplace is extremely low as long as there is an adequate supply of fresh air and ventilation. Hyperlocal monitoring would require a large network of sensors which may be expensive to install.
- Deploy audio analytics to identify coughing, another of the main symptoms. This would not, however, necessarily discriminate between people with a common cold or identify the individual(s) concerned. There may be some privacy concerns over the potential for surveillance.
But as discussed in an earlier Casella article [³] maintaining social distancing is also a key strategy. So what technology is being considered or adopted to aid social distancing? Before answering that rhetorical question let us just rewind a little.
So-called wearable technology has been touted as a panacea for productivity and health & safety (H&S) improvements for several years but there has been a difficulty in establishing a cost/benefit argument as well as dealing with worker concerns over privacy.
Some of the earliest wearable technology dates back 50-60 years i.e. personal sampling pumps and noise dosimeters but it was not until the advent of such devices with Bluetooth connectivity that they truly could claim the ‘wearable title’.
An unexpected benefit of being able to monitor a deployed pump or noise dosimeter using a smartphone app, originally intended to avoid disturbing the worker, is that the H&S professional can maintain a safe (social) distance while performing their role. Ironically, an unexpected outcome of keeping a 2-metre distance may be a difficulty in communicating face-to-face in a noisy factory environment, which may point to the very ‘noise problem’ that itself requires further investigation.
Launching a call for shared research, the UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) said in early 2019 [⁴], that there was growing evidence that wearable devices could significantly benefit health and safety in the workplace through positioning and sensor technologies. They went on to say that the advancement of the Internet of Things (IoT) has meant that many of these technologies are increasingly being deployed, helping to improve workplace productivity. They identified two priority areas; monitoring occupational personal exposure to hazardous chemical substances & physical hazards on construction sites as well as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in workers identified at greater risk.
So as a direct response to the pandemic, already in-service H&S monitoring products have either been re-purposed or have had functionality added to alert wearers to the proximity of fellow workers. These include personal gas detectors and hand-arm vibration (HAVS) monitors but there are many sectors where there is no requirement for such devices, which therefore requires a more bespoke solution. These include wearable tags and smartphone apps. Tags may be used for ‘peer to peer’ proximity warning but when used with other supporting infrastructure, could provide a real-time location system or contact tracing. In the case that a test confirms an infection, contact tracing can be used to isolate others who may have unwittingly become infected and would be pivotal for a follow up intervention.
Perhaps the use of technology for this pandemic-specific application heralds the paradigm shift to enable mass adoption of a (wearable) platform that can monitor a variety of physical and chemical agents as well as position, posture, vital signs etc? It seems that manufacturers could well be pushing on a technology-receptive, industry door that the pandemic has unexpectedly opened. Technology options for social distancing will be reviewed in a subsequent article.
For industrial organizations, operating in the world before the COVID-19 crisis was no walk in the park, according to LNS Research [¹]. Complexity, change, and uncertainty was already the order of the day, presenting a continually evolving risk environment to be dealt with. In response, companies were embracing Industrial Transformation as the strategic framework to drive step-change performance improvement and competitive advantage.
The simple truth is that there is an inexorable drive to do more with less as witnessed by the rise in automation, robots, and artificial intelligence (AI). But many sectors either do not have access to or indeed need these tools and rely almost exclusively on white and blue-collar workers for their productivity. What exactly is productivity? Productivity describes various measures of the efficiency of production. Often, a productivity measure is expressed as the ratio of aggregate output to a single input or an aggregate input used in a production process, i.e. output per unit of input, typically over a specific time period.
UK productivity, or rather the lack of it, was already on the political, business, and public-sector agendas long before the pandemic. The Office for National Statistics estimated that output per hour worked in the United Kingdom in 2015 was 15.9 percentage points below the average for the rest of the G7 advanced economies. This is despite the July 2015 publication of a Government plan to increase productivity. But the COVID-19 pandemic at a stroke reduced productivity in some cases to zero as many companies were forced wholesale to close to stop the spread of the virus. And for those that did continue e.g. UK construction, they saw an unprecedented 35% productivity loss [²].
Linking productivity with health & wellbeing
The so-called second wave has been treated differently, as more has been learned and as a result, many white-collar workers now routinely work from home seemingly without a drop in productivity, in fact just the opposite [³]. Significant evidence also exists [⁴] supporting the link between wellbeing at work and productivity, wellbeing including physical and mental health. ‘Good work’, jobs that are skilled, autonomous, supported, secure, safe with good work-life balance and a good income is associated with better physical and mental health, and less absenteeism. This translates to an estimated 8-15% impact on productivity.
For blue-collar workers, however, the need has been to return to the workplace. The pandemic has, therefore, hastened employer investments in a broad application of technology, and specifically, 85% of responders according to a McKinsey survey [⁵] stated that they had accelerated adoption of digitization for employee interaction and collaboration.
The LNS research also discovered the types of actions that industrial organizations took to mitigate safety and operational risks. They conducted surveys on response actions at two points in time: March 2020 in the early phases of the pandemic, and three months later. The most common response was obviously updating Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) requirements for the frontline workforce, administrative controls such as staggering shift start and stop times, and implementing rotating shifts were used heavily, especially in the early phase. Much greater emphasis was placed on more permanent engineering and operational controls such as re-configuring production process flow to improve physical distancing of personnel. This has the unexpected benefit of creating new opportunities for lean manufacturing according to a recent on-line article (⁶), a watchword for efficiency and hence productivity gains.
The business case for ‘smart wearables’
Getting people back to work has an immediate impact on productivity but there are equally employee concerns regarding their ongoing health and safety. So there has also been a focus on the use of Connected Worker and related digital technologies which has gained traction, including smart wearables, to help maintain distancing. The latter has been shown to support a back to work strategy and to nudge behaviors in order to maintain compliance [⁷]. For less than the cost of a cup of coffee per employee per week for a typical wearable tag (in the first year) you would only need to gain 12 minutes per week of additional output through employees feeling safer and supported in order to gain a payback (based on a US average salary of ~ $50K/annum and a 40-hour week). It is likely that the ROI would be significantly more. And if the use of a contact tracing functionality, potentially infected workers could be isolated, and a productivity crisis averted.
This was the case at Highways England’s A14 project office which reopened after a six-day closure for deep cleaning after a member of staff tested positive for COVID-19 and it is believed that the need for full closure and wide-spread self-isolation could have been avoided through the use of such technology.
In summary, happy, healthy workers are more productive particularly ones who may otherwise have concerns for their personal safety because of COVID-19. Keeping the wheels of industry and commerce turning is supported by smart technology investments as the UK looks to get its productivity back on track and indeed to the pre-COVID levels enjoyed by its International competitors.