All eyes remain focused on essential worker health and safety in the midst of a pandemic. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing federal regulators to issue stronger safety guidance and worker protections for COVID-19. The order emphasizes just how critical safety measures are to the workplace for combating virus spread and informing and protecting the workforce.

Industrial employers trying to keep frontline workers safe and healthy on the job during the pandemic are getting a boost from innovations in connected technology like wearables. These Wifi-enabled devices are collecting new data points and enabling actionable insights that help streamline and target workplace safety measures.

During a time when timing is everything, wearables are helping employers identify and prevent health and safety threats in real time.

New data sets for new worker safety concerns

Wifi is not just a staple in our homes and offices — it’s now on the floor of almost every warehouse and manufacturing facility. It allows for advanced processes like warehouse management systems and new efficiencies like worker time tracking. And it enables connected devices on equipment, machines and people to transmit millions of data points in real or near-real time.

These data points include ones related to worker safety. For example, wearable devices have been used extensively in recent years to measure employee ergonomics, helping to reduce high-risk movements and avert workplace injuries. With the emergence of Covid, wearable devices evolved to meet new safety needs - sensors are now also measuring data points like worker proximity, close contacts and contact duration.

These new data sets are invaluable for keeping essential employees working and operations running. The impact to operations managing worker health and safety without objective data can be significant during a pandemic. This was witnessed last year when meatpacking plants across the country became virus hotspots, reportedly infecting over 57,000 employees. Or consider facilities that support crucial supply chains involved in the manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines - if they shut down, the entire world is affected.

Actionable insights help focus safety measures

While the amount of data points being sent to analytics platforms has exploded, the time people have to interpret it has not. Robust systems are now able to distill the data into easy-to-understand and actionable insights that focus on the most pressing areas of concern. Such a system can highlight or alert managers to a problem, and even suggest actions that can solve it — a valuable tool in the Covid era of social distancing and contact tracing.

For example, with wearables and a smart analytics system, employers can streamline their contact tracing process. Wifi-connected tech records every employee contact, so management is not solely reliant on employee recall and surveillance footage to identify potential risks when a positive case rears. Objective data helps to pinpoint specifically which employees to focus interviews on, and exactly what times of day to target for reviewing camera footage.

This data-driven process saves managers significant time and increases accuracy.

Manufacturers cut contact tracing time with wearables

Wearables can cut contact tracing time from days to hours. One example is when a positive case emerged at the facility of a leading manufacturer of construction access equipment. The environmental health and safety manager and human resources team used their wearable and software analytics platform to quickly run a contact tracing report, saving them multiple hours of tracing compared to a previous experience.

The EHS manager reported that the contact tracing report is “a great starting point for positive cases” and it “has saved us hours of work navigating these scenarios.” The company was able to communicate to employees exactly what they did to address the positive case using objective data.

Another manufacturer reported that the contact tracing capabilities of their wearable and analytics system allowed them to complete a tracing process in 2-3 hours, compared to the 24- to-36-hour process they had experienced without supplemental data. Additionally, the company avoided lost productivity of a key employee when data showed the duration of their contact with the infected employee was not enough for them to be quarantined, despite them recalling otherwise.

With access to dashboard reports that provide data in easy-to-analyze formats, both companies were able to quickly recognize risks and take actions to reduce virus transmission in their facilities.

Flexibility amidst changing guidance

Ideally, innovations in wearable safety solutions will allow for flexibility as pandemic safety requirements evolve.

When the CDC guidance for contact tracing was adjusted last fall to define the 15-minute close contact timeframe as cumulative, a digital contact tracing solution became even more relevant. Without it, an employee would have to verbally report on each individual with which they may have had a cumulative exposure of 15 minutes, over any 24 hour time period - a nearly impossible situation even in less stressful circumstances.

Now, OSHA is working to evaluate current worker protections, review enforcement efforts, and update COVID safety recommendations, as directed by President Biden's executive order. OSHA’s directives include the consideration of special guidance for specific industrial environments and a potential emergency temporary standard that could mandate requirements such as mask-wearing, social distancing and communication with workers during outbreaks.

With the ability to connect an entire workforce, today’s wearable tech and analytics systems can monitor all employee interactions, measure worker proximity, and facilitate the swift communication of an identified risk. As such, it’s uniquely positioned to augment essential worker safety measures if and when new guidance and requirements are introduced.