Tagging Employees to Stop the Coronavirus

Feb. 26, 2021
Contact-tracing systems can encourage employees to maintain social distancing – and find out who is at risk of exposure.

Until the pandemic is suppressed by vaccines, social distancing and contract tracing remain the only readily available tools companies have against it. These can be a lot more effective when backed by digital technology.

Systems are available that can remind employees on a plant floor, or within any other confines, to keep their distance on the plant floor and record when they don’t. They have the capacity to record every incident of close contact between individuals – date and time, location, duration – and, if one of those individuals proves positive for COVID, generate reports detailing those contacts.

These systems vary in their technology and operational principles. Choosing among them requires thinking about what kinds of information is needed, how to protect employee privacy and what use, if any, the system will have after the pandemic is over.

Some of these systems evolved from other, pre-pandemic uses, such as tracking trucks – or even helping to train athletes in team sports. Others were created specifically to deal with the pandemic. They all require employees to wear or carry devices that can send, and in most cases receive, digital signals and can interface with some sort of data-gathering device. What varies is the method of gathering data and the types of signals.

Many systems can analyze contact data in near-real time and display it on a dashboard.
Photo: Airista

One of the first questions in evaluating these systems is what capability and infrastructure, if any, they require from the customer. Some use the customer’s Wi-Fi to gather and upload information.

One such system is Airista Flow, which was originally developed to track the movements of both employees and mobile assets like trucks. In the Airista system, workers wear tags that emit signals and can “recognize” each other. When a contact exceeds preset parameters (typically, per CDC guidelines, 6 ft. for 15 min.), the tag records it. When the employee ventures close enough to a Wi-Fi hotspot, the tag uploads the contacts it has stored; the data goes to Airista for processing.

Proximity tags often emit visual and/or audible alarms when employees get too close for too long.
Photo: Triax

Most contract-tracing systems like Airista use sensor-to-sensor technology. The sensors emit regular, or constant, outgoing signals; the system is triggered when two or more sensors get within a predetermined range, usually 6 ft. One of the biggest differences, however, is the communication method and protocol used.

Airista uses Bluetooth, which is a widespread low-power wireless technology. Other systems use different communication protocols that they claim are more accurate.

Triax launched ProximityTrace in April. It’s a system designed specifically for the pandemic, says CEO Robert Costantini. It uses what he will only describe as a proprietary communication protocol on a wavelength in the sub-gigahertz spectrum. Contacts are recorded on wearable devices that upload their data automatically to a “cloud pod” whenever they get within range; this does not depend on the user’s Wi-Fi or other internet connectivity. Triax analyzes the data remotely and displays it on a dashboard.

Ultra wideband

One of the more popular communication technologies for contract tracing is ultra wideband (UWB), a form of radio waves that can transmit large amounts of data over short ranges with low energy. That’s the communication technology used by Kinexon for SafeZone, another contact tracing system developed for the pandemic. Kinexon drew on its experience with systems designed to track the movements of athletes around a field or court, adapting it to track and store contacts between tag wearers.

Like other systems, SafeZone stores contacts on tags that give visible and/or audible signals if they get too close to another one. One difference is in data handling. Instead of automatically uploading data wirelessly, the tags disburse it to a charging tray that doubles as a data-collection station. The portable tray can be moved, if necessary, to a place where it can be connected to a laptop or other device, which can either upload the data or analyze it with Kinexon’s software.

UWB is ideal for sensor-to-sensor communication because of its high precision, says Matt Bontorin, marketing communications manager. The tags are accurate to within 10cm and store contact data until they’re uploaded to the charging tray.

“If somebody does test positive, you’re able to very quickly identify who that person has come into contact with and how long that duration is,” Bontorin says.

Contact-tracing technology, whatever its forms, depends on workers wearing or carrying devices that send, and usually receive, signals.
Photo: BlueCats

UWB is a precise yet power-sensitive short-range technology, which leads to a potential drawback: In crowded environments, a large number of tags can overwhelm each other, leading to poor data and dead batteries.

BlueCats gets around that problem by leveraging the advantages of both Bluetooth and UWB. BlueCats CEO Nathan Dunn admits that Bluetooth is not as precise in terms of tracking as UWB: “From a tracking standpoint, it’s a bit fuzzy.” But that becomes an advantage for BlueCats’ system, which uses tags that run both Bluetooth and UWB.

If a location is swarming with tags, a UWB system can have a hard time keeping track of them all, Dunn says. The Bluetooth component can help the system perform what he calls “triage,” by focusing on the tags or area the user really wants information from. It can set an overriding range of, say, 40m and keep the system from recording contacts farther away than that. BlueCats also uses Bluetooth to upload contact data from tags to a gateway device that can run wirelessly or off Ethernet, without using any of the customer’s internet capacity.

Finding the tag

Most contact tracing systems, whether designed specifically for COVID tracking or adapted for it from another purpose, depend on tag-to-tag communication—the tags send out constant signals that “find” each other when wearers get too close. The Enlighted unit of Siemens is an exception.

Enlighted, bought by Siemens in 2018, markets a motion-sensing system originally designed to monitor human traffic flows and track mobile assets. Instead of interactive tags, Enlighted uses motion sensors placed throughout a building, usually on light fixtures, that pick up signals from tags worn or carried by employees.

It uses Bluetooth, which has the added bonus of being able to use employees’ existing key cards or other ID devices if they’re Bluetooth-enabled (although most such devices use RFID). The distribution of the motion sensors allows the system to triangulate and calculate the location of an individual tag more precisely than Bluetooth technology usually can.

For tracking COVID contacts, Enlighted uses an app called Safe that sits on its existing system. Safe displays its data in two dashboards. One displays the system’s overall number of excessive person-to-person contacts, which can be useful for macro-level planning, says Mark Milligan, Enlighted's senior vice president for marketing.

“That’s an analytic sort of approach to say, ‘Wow, I thought we were implementing social distancing, but we’re still having groups of employees coming together,’” Milligan says.

The other dashboard isolates the contacts of a single individual (or more) if that person tests positive for COVID. The tags all have numerical IDs so that employee privacy is not breached, Milligan says.

Secret identity

Maintaining employee privacy is one of the most delicate considerations in implementing a COVID tracing program. The basic imperative is that as few people as possible know the identity of someone who tests positive or otherwise presents a necessity for contact tracing.

In tracing systems, privacy is usually a function of decentralization; the less centralized a system is, the easier it is to confine information to individuals. Most companies that invest in tracing, however, do so to effectively combat the spread of COVID within their walls, or at least to get an accurate picture of its status. The best systems combine the privacy that comes with decentralization with the capacity to determine identity when needed, and only when needed.

When deciding whether to invest in a contact tracing system, potential buyers should ask themselves two basic questions: how long they expect to do COVID-related contact tracing, and whether they want the system to do anything else once the pandemic is over.

Gauging the end of the pandemic, at least as of press time, is a tricky calculation. Vaccines are rolling out and several jurisdictions are prioritizing food industry workers. On the other hand, there still aren’t enough vaccines to go around, new and worrisome variants of the coronavirus are emerging, and it’s unclear whether vaccinated individuals can still transmit the disease.

On top of this, many Americans – 25%, according to one poll – distrust vaccines so intensely that they have no plans to get a COVID vaccine shot. Vendors of tracing systems point to this uncertainty as proof that contact tracing will still be needed for a while.

“Basically, this [tracing] is a minimum two-year requirement,” says Dunn of BlueCats. “Because this concept of, ‘There’s a vaccine, everything will go back to normal’ – in my opinion that’s flawed thinking.”

Nonetheless, the pandemic will subside eventually, which is why anyone thinking of a contact tracing system may want to consider what, if anything, it could do for them after the crisis is over. That kind of versatility is more likely to be found in systems that were originally designed for other purposes and adapted for the pandemic. Milligan, for instance, notes that Enlighted can be used for space optimization, asset location and energy savings (through switching lights on and off as needed).

“So you’re getting a platform that you’re going to be able to use not just during the pandemic time, but going forward, having a lot of additional value on top of that, and paying for itself with energy savings,” he says. 

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