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The Role of Technology in a Post-Pandemic World

April 2, 2021
A look back at how technology has helped worker health and safety during COVID-19 and imagining its role in the future.

A little over a year ago, we didn’t know much about social distancing, lockdowns or self-isolation—or that we would live through them for the rest of the year. Nobody could have foreseen the storm that was brewing. Who’d have thought that 2020 would be the year when we’d have to knock elbows instead of shaking hands, stand two meters apart from one another at all times, or abandon going into the office altogether?

The fact is, things have changed. Even with vaccines now being rolled out, there are elements of this so-called new normal that are likely to stay with us for the foreseeable future—perhaps even forever.

Workplaces in all sectors, from health care to manufacturing, have had to adapt rapidly to new health and safety guidelines to keep employees safe. For some workplaces, that means regular COVID-19 testing where available and rearranged processes to maintain social distancing. For others, it’s meant forging new ways of working altogether, such as embracing online meetings and virtual communications.

Let’s take a closer look at the year that was as we begin to imagine the future of health and safety.

The Impact of the Pandemic

Early in the pandemic, the government urged people to work from home wherever possible. This is good advice during a viral outbreak, but the operative words “wherever possible” made this a hollow sentiment for construction workers, health care employees, emergency services staff, grocery workers, bus drivers and the many more who were regarded as essential workers. They still needed to show up to perform their jobs in order to keep the economy—and the country—moving.

These essential industries had to retool and redesign operations to accommodate plexiglass screens, hand sanitizer stations, face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) into everyday workflows. Their actions served as a blueprint for businesses of all types when they were eventually allowed to reopen.

Adapting to the New Normal

Protecting worker health and safety has always been labyrinthine by nature. So many of these achievements have come through a process of attrition, gradually shifting the needle over time to make conditions incrementally better for workers. This past year, however, has not afforded the luxury of time to any of us.

Health and safety professionals have had to adapt almost overnight, with the federal and local government creating COVID-19 workplace safety guidelines in a matter of weeks, many of which that have continued to evolve and are still in place today.

Some of these changes are temporary, such as the need for social distancing. Others may be more fundamental and long term, such as the need for better air filtration systems in office buildings or the use of contactless cards to gain entry. These long-term adaptations will improve worker safety and help us in the event of future pandemics.

One demand that is shared by virtually all workplaces—particularly those on the frontline—is the need for safe communication. Typically, these industries might have relied on push-to-talk radios or intercom systems to relay critical information, but in a post-COVID-19 world, these technologies come with associated risk.

For instance, push-to-talk radios are often shared among many employees and require contact to operate. Intercom phone systems also use shared surfaces, which would require constant disinfecting between uses—hardly ideal during a busy shift on the factory floor or a hospital wing. Even if intercom systems were disinfected between uses, staff in areas that required heavy PPE would still find themselves removing gloves, visors and masks to use them properly, thus making themselves and those nearby more vulnerable.

Smart PPE and Communication

To remedy this communication problem, we’re likely to see smart PPE soar in popularity. Smart PPE simply refers to PPE that’s been outfitted with intelligent technology to increase its function, such as a hands-free, voice-activated communication device built into a helmet or an augmented reality overlay built into a visor or pair of goggles.

In the coming years, teams working over entire construction sites, warehouses or hospitals might contact one another without any kind of physical interfacing. Communication devices could be seamlessly integrated into existing PPE equipment such as visors, helmets and overalls. That would give business leaders far more choice when it comes to tackling social distancing and contamination. Such devices could even use mesh communication networks to advance their communication capabilities further.

A mesh-based intercom system doesn’t replace land mobile radio (also known as private mobile radio) or cellular technology altogether, but it’s quickly becoming the technology of choice for small teams that need to exchange complex information quickly, reliably and securely.

One of the greatest advantages of wireless mesh communication is that it operates as a self-sufficient standalone network, with no need for a base station and zero dependence on cellular reception. Mesh communication is also self-healing, meaning if a unit goes out of range, the rest stay connected and when that unit comes back in range, it automatically rejoins. Some devices are also voice activated, making them a viable option for COVID-secure work environments where contact should be kept to a minimum.

It would be up to PPE manufacturers and businesses themselves to figure out how best to incorporate mesh communication into their own equipment lineup, but it will likely play a key part in helping to shape health and safety standards in the coming years.

Wearable Technology

Statista Research Department predicts there will be over 1.1 billion connected wearable devices worldwide by 2022, facilitated largely by the advent of widespread 5G rollouts. There’s little doubt that the discovery of new use cases, such as the application of wearables in workplaces, will contribute greatly to this rapid adoption rate.

In that regard, the COVID-19 pandemic has acted has a huge catalyst. Many essential workplaces such as hospitals and factories are looking for new ways to keep their businesses moving while maintaining social distancing and limiting contact.

From biometric smartwatches to Bluetooth headsets to experimental augmented reality products such as Google Glass, we’ve been trying to crack wearable tech for a long time. The wearables market has been gaining steady traction for the past decade or so, but 2020 has put it under the spotlight.

Suddenly, we’re living in a world where minimizing physical contact is not just a luxury but a necessity. The advantages of wearable tech for workers are becoming readily apparent.

The New Health and Safety Rule book

For decades, health and safety protocols have been a tangible set of rules focused largely on physical measures, particularly at worksites and factories. We’re used to hard hats and steel-capped boots, non-slip surfaces and ear protection, but health and safety measures are going to look a little bit different going forward.

In addition to the tangible physical measures we’re all used to, we’re likely to see more intangible health and safety measures take the spotlight. Things like air filtration quality will climb up the health and safety agenda as well as things like person-to-person proximity. Employee health and well-being is also likely to be treated with more scrutiny and care moving forward, with companies enforcing strict policies regarding home working when ill.

Even after the COVID-19 pandemic is declared over, it will have left a lasting mark on the health and safety rulebook. It’ll be up to individual businesses to embrace new methods and technologies to help keep workers safe, pandemic or otherwise. EHS

Lesley McLeod is CEO of The Association for Project Safety, a U.K.-based professional body dedicated to eliminating deaths, reducing injury and tackling ill health associated with construction.

Shachar Harari is chief business officer and head of Cardo Crew, an Israel-based wireless team communication solution designed for hazardous and noisy work environments.

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