Innovations in safety during the COVID-19 era

Sean Stinson, Contributor

Responding to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about several, once-unthinkable challenges to the safety industry. Along with protecting workers from the daily risks of an industrial worksite, organizations were suddenly faced with continuing operations— while also keeping their people healthy and safe from a rapidly spreading disease.

At the onset of the pandemic, most of these challenges were limited to businesses deemed “essential,” which included Blackline Safety, as well as other organizations in sectors such as healthcare, financial, manufacturing, energy, utilities, telecom, retail and logistics. The world looked to these essential industries to ensure the continued flow of vital goods and services, also helping to keep the economy afloat as it battled the pandemic.

These industries were operating with a reduced workforce where teams often split shifts and shared daily workflows, resulting in more people working alone than ever before. These people are defined as lone workers, or personnel working in isolation, beyond the sight and sound of others, where no one is available to lend a hand.

Whether it is for short periods of time, continuously or intermittently, any second a lone worker is not monitored presents a major safety risk. That’s why lone worker safety has been an increasingly critical topic in recent years; the COVID-19 pandemic has only pushed it to further into the forefront.

As time went on and more businesses began to resume operations in a limited capacity with reduced staff, the stress on the safety industry only increased. Some organizations that had been operating for months began welcoming more employees back to work. Others were just restarting operations. No matter which category businesses fell into, they faced serious obstacles—such as continuing to protect lone workers or ensuring a higher number of on-site staff maintained physical distancing.

It has been the safety industry’s responsibility to help these essential businesses protect their people and keep them safe—both from the daily challenges of the industrial worksite and from the global pandemic.

Lone Worker Monitoring Tools

While COVID-19 forced businesses to respond and adapt quickly, some were fortunate to not have to start from square one. The connected safety landscape has transformed in recent years, and solutions to monitor lone workers have become widely available for many businesses.

For example, connected safety wearables and cloud-hosted software with 24/7 staffed Safety Operations Centers are tools created by the safety industry that helped protect the increased number of lone workers. This technology offers a broad range of capabilities, including monitoring, location technology, gas detection and two-way communications, which helped organizations seamlessly combat the early challenges of the pandemic.

In addition to the capabilities of lone worker technology, several companies that employed isolated personnel created or expanded a live monitoring team to help further optimize the impact of these tools. These teams tracked employees’ location and activity, as well as established and closely followed documented response protocols, empowering them with full situational awareness and a plan for every scenario that might occur.

For lone workers and monitoring teams, the most effective organizations also implemented a strong system of communication that operated without interruption. The same connected safety products that businesses leverage to monitor lone workers also often come equipped with functionality similar to a walkie-talkie, allowing field and office staff to communicate directly in real-time. These tools helped expand and enhance communication systems that were challenged with an increased number of lone workers.

No matter the severity of a potential incident, the response must be quick and seamless. The combination of technology and an equipped monitoring team ensured every lone worker could go to work during an uncertain time, knowing they had somebody looking over them and keeping them safe.

The Challenges of Returning to Work

As many regions began re-opening to some degree and the importance of physical distancing increased, organizations also needed a strategy for monitoring workers who are not alone. This was because individuals who returned to the field or office and did not properly distance present a severe risk to any given workforce and their loved ones.

While masks and other PPE played an important role in avoiding an outbreak, the safety industry was quick to create tools that helped encourage and remind workers to social distance while performing work. Through the location-monitoring feature of safety wearables, many organizations benefitted from technology that offered a close contact-detection feature, which provides users with a real-time notification when they enter into proximity of others wearing the same technology.

Additionally, through communications, location technology, cloud-hosted software and data science, businesses were also able to leverage the same digital tools to support contact tracing investigations on an industrial worksite. While Google and Apple collaborated on contact tracing apps for smartphones, most industrial entities required employees to leave their phones in their locker due to safety concerns. This left a gap that lone worker monitoring solutions were able to readily fill, helping support business continuity while maximizing employee safety.

Specifically, location-enabled wearable safety technology helped industrial businesses to better manage exposure risks as part of their COVID-19 return-to-work programs. Organizations that already deployed connected safety solutions were able to quickly achieve an integrated digital contact tracing system that helped keep their people safe, all without needing to install additional infrastructure.

Through data science and visualizations from their current connected solutions, businesses had immediate and improved visibility into the frequency of close contact events between workers and where on the worksite these interactions were occurring. Safety professionals could identify potential super-spreaders or high-contact areas in which close contact was most frequently occurring. They could also quickly retrace a worker’s steps, in the event of a positive test, and identify exactly which workers with whom they had close contact during the past weeks.

All of this data has helped enable companies to rapidly mitigate the spread of COVID-19 throughout their workforces, while simultaneously maintaining or improving the productivity of their worksites. For example, on a construction job site, organizations have been able to glean insights, such as how long it takes for workers to wait at a tool crib, while ensuring those people properly distance and the area is not at risk of high contact occurrences.

Innovation in the Safety Industry

While COVID-19 continues to impact our communities and industrial worksites, the various capabilities that technology has delivered have enabled organizations to effectively navigate the safety and economical challenges of the pandemic. This digital and “connected” approach has also helped prepare the safety industry for future challenges, enabling businesses to quickly adapt to new or unknown concerns that may emerge down the road.

The past year has demonstrated the innovation, passion and responsiveness of our industry—a tremendous accomplishment that makes the team at Blackline Safety proud to have played a small role in making it a reality. Together, we have the tools and expertise to protect industrial workers around the world, giving them the confidence they need to get the job done and return home safe. IHW

[Sean Stinson is Chief Revenue Officer at Blackline Safety.]

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