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How to Keep Workers Safe From COVID-19

Jan. 27, 2021
A look at technologies that are keeping workers safe and plants operational during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

As a key economic driver and essential industry, manufacturing during COVID-19 has been put to the test like never before. From producing medical devices and hand sanitizers, to pantry staples or toilet paper, production lines are in overdrive. Additional work shifts have been added to help the supply meet up with increasing demands. 

Yet, outbreaks of the virus – or fear of exposure –  have forced  manufacturers to continue to rethink their processes. Industries ranging from automotive to food processing to consumer-packaged goods have had difficulty following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for social distancing, which is not always possible due to the close proximity of workers that may be required, leading to plant shutdowns and resulting in supply shortages and waste of essential products.

 Manufacturers, however, are learning to adapt to keep plants open and productive and workers safe by implementing new safety protocols. They’re also implementing technology specifically focused on curtailing COVID-19, such as Internet of Things (IoT) wearables, to help them keep track of unavoidable exposures among their workforces.

 IoT Helps Ensure Social Distancing and Contact Tracing

IoT-based wearable sensors are helping manufacturers to meet CDC recommended six-foot social distancing requirements. These sensors can gather data to identify trends or patterns of behavior that can be used to make informed adjustments in how workers interact in their plants and warehouses. They also can alert workers in real-time when they are in close proximity to each other. These real-time notifications can mitigate the number of close contact interactions as well as educate workers to make safe social distancing a more natural practice with less distraction from the work at hand.

 If an outbreak does occur in the plant, IoT devices enable contact tracing, providing a documented digital trail of recorded close contact interactions. It allows manufacturers to  identify – within minutes – everyone the infected individual came into close contact with and quarantine only those who have been exposed, instead of the entire workforce. This is critical to preventing a major outbreak or a complete plant shutdown.

Additionally, since worker privacy is a key concern, some digital contact tracing providers have built their solutions so that each employee can be anonymized, and only authorized managers would know the identity for each assigned IoT sensor to carry out proper notifications in the event of exposure.

Through data-driven insights into close interactions between workers, manufacturers can make more informed decisions about changing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) or protocols. For example, one major manufacturer of agricultural products found that it was difficult to keep workers six feet apart during maintenance shutdown and turnarounds at its facilities, since it required more than eight times the number of people to be on-site as compared to normal operations. By using wearable sensors that provided social distancing reminders, the manufacturer was able to accommodate the increased number of workers while keeping the site safer for all workers involved.

Other Innovative Uses of Technology to Keep the Production Lines Running

In addition to the specific safety solutions powered by IoT technology described above, there are other technologies that are helping to keep manufacturing operations running smoothly and safely, such as predictive analytics and deep learning technologies.

Artificial intelligence-powered predictive analytics, driven by collected data from IoT solutions, such as worker wearable sensors, can help to identify patterns of behavior to better predict future outcomes. For example, there may be more incidences of close proximity during busy shifts; or at lunch time when workers may be congregating in common areas. Predictive analytics can forecast the likelihood of these incidences so proactive action can be taken, such as adding a new shift to decrease the number of workers needed at a given time, staggering lunch periods or helping managers determine if safety protocols are being followed. Also, by using deep learning solutions coupled with video technology, manufacturers are able to monitor adherence to safety protocols, such as sanitizing machinery, monitoring mask use or following safe social distancing.  

As manufacturers continue to ramp up production to meet growing demand for consumer goods, healthcare supplies and other necessities, keeping workers safe remains essential to business. Thankfully, new technologies offer this safety assurance, giving workers peace of mind and manufacturers confidence to continue to be economic drivers and provide the output that the market demands.

Robert Costantini is CEO of Triax Technologies, Inc. an Internet of Things (IoT) provider of solutions connecting construction and industrial worksites. He can be reached via email at [email protected].

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