Balancing Employee Health and Safety With Business Continuity During a Pandemic

Aug. 10, 2020
Maintaining operations during the coronavirus pandemic is difficult at best. The key to keeping personnel safe amid the global pandemic may lie in data acquisition initiatives and tracking and tracing technologies.

Employee health and safety is the most critical requirement for maintaining operational and business continuity in the COVID-19 communal work environment. When a positive test occurs in the workplace, the typical reaction is to enforce a campus-wide or zoned shutdown in the manufacturing facility, causing a disruption to production. Future management to prevent spreading should include pro-active measures, so that no production shutdowns need to occur while keeping employees safe and healthy. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is releasing guidance and regulations on the steps employers should take in preparing workplaces for COVID-19. Key to implementing OSHA guidelines could lie in data-driven approaches to business continuity. With that in mind, let’s examine some possibilities.

A good first approach is to leverage existing systems, such as door access badge scanning, to understand who was in a given area during a specific time range. This data can provide coarse contact tracing resulting in more informed quarantining. However, the effectiveness of the data set relies on having numerous badge readers throughout the facility to understand where and when potential contact was made. Most plants have some level of access control, so this is a good place to begin building a digital index of data to aid in understanding the full scope of a positive test result.

Door access alone doesn’t provide enough data to accurately measure contact tracing, so we must increase granularity by utilizing more advanced data sources to understand where and for how long people are interacting in a given work environment. Examples are work order systems, workstation logins, room scheduling systems, and location services provided by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth beacons.

One technology that has created buzz is a lanyard/phone Bluetooth node-to-node that provides “not safe distance” alerting, but this approach can only provide coarse contact tracing without context on where interaction has occurred. This sort of “safety by proximity” alerting approach is a stopgap measure to aid in behavior modification regarding social distancing, but it doesn’t give the deep analytics regarding how people move and interact within a manufacturing environment.

Accurate location data is what most COVID-19 task forces are seeking to aid in contact tracing, and Real Time Location Systems (RTLS) is a technology many are looking at investing in. An RTLS equips personnel with a lanyard/badge/wearable tag and can provide precise location data with the addition of some infrastructure that complements typical plant floor wireless technologies.  Ultra-Wideband (UWB) is one such technology that can provide 1ft resolution positioning with high signal stability. UWB uses tags (transmitters) on the person or asset and anchors (receivers) mounted on the ceiling or walls. UWB is also becoming more prevalent in the consumer market with companies—like Apple embedding this technology in their devices for precise proximity awareness to other devices or enabling tracking of tagged personal effects such as wallets and keys. While UWB is the superior RTLS, most manufacturing facilities do not currently have the infrastructure in place to support this robust approach. Capital investment would, most likely, be required.

So why is an UWB RTLS the “best” solution for contact tracing within a manufacturing facility?  UWB RTLS can be a versatile investment with expanded use cases beyond tracking and tracing infected employees. Other applications include quick mustering in the event of an unsafe condition in a segment of the plant, panic button in the case of an accident or need for immediate medical attention, geofencing and restricted area alerting, people-awareness environment in an operating zone, health/safety awareness, people navigation and people flow analytics including “heatmapping” and “spaghetti diagrams”.

Additional opportunities for manufacturers to improve and enhance their operation are possible when they make the investment to deploy UWB RTLS in their facility. Examples include asset inventory and location, digital work order asset search, material flow and production planning, forklift tracking, guided picking process, and location-based automation triggers.

It is clear that manufacturers will need to establish a hazard analysis framework and roadmap by further increasing the accuracy and scope of visibility around potentially infected employees through ingestion of new technologies and data sets. There is also a need to assess potential infrastructure investments to provide a safe and healthy work environment conducive to meeting production demands that also meet the COVID-19 OSHA requirements. Currently, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Every manufacturer has different enterprise systems, custom data integration and specific application functionality requirements. But it is certain that a truly effective solution will rely on an index of digital data from many disparate sources.  Addressing employee health and safety in the post-COVID communal work environment can and should be considered a digital transformation initiative.

System Integrators (SI) knowledgeable in manufacturing and advanced technologies can be an asset to manufacturers navigating the many options to dealing with contact tracing. The role of the SI is to understand the client’s business objectives so the SI can provide relevant guidance to the client on the “art of the possible” through the deployment of advanced tracking and tracing technologies and analytics.

Daniel C. Malyszko is director of operations and IIoT consultant at Malisko Engineering, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). See Malisko Engineering’s profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.