It’s February, and a team of execs sits poolside at their firm’s annual leadership retreat, far from the gray drizzle back east. They’ve just come from a seven-minute meeting on last year’s safety record, and the talk turns to what a dangerous place the world is these days.

The head of IT mentions he bought a Digital Angel for one of his kids for Christmas. “A digital what?” asks someone. He explains: It’s a wristwatch with five alerts. An emergency alert, a fall-down alert, a wander alert, a temperature alert and a low battery alert. A call service sends the alerts by email to your cell phone or PC.

“I got my son the GPS Kid Locator Tracker Backpack,” chimes in the HR manager. “Now I know where he goes soon as he gets off the bus.”

“Didn’t I read how global positioning systems are being used to assess behavior patterns in a cattle grazing project,” interjects the facilities manager.

That’d be no surprise, says the head of research. Worldwide sales of GPS could be up to $10.8 billion by 2008. All cell phone companies are now required to offer GPS capabilities. And by 2006 four out of five new cars will be equipped with GPS. The head of research knows all.

Hmmm, says the owner of the organization. “Something you said about ‘behavior patterns.’ I’m putting two and two together here.”

The circle of VPs draw their lounge chairs closer.

Here come the guardian angels

“Doesn’t safety want to execute a behavior-based coaching pilot in ’05?” asks the owner. “Safety doesn’t have enough people anymore to be the eyes and ears all over the plant, right? They want everyone to be their own safety coach, right?”

“Well how about this,” the owner warms to his subject, getting excited. “Instead of pulling people off the line to, what do they call it, observe target behaviors at risk or whatever, why not just hook one of these GPS guardian angels on everyone?”

“I’ll be damned, an embedded workforce,” smiles the facilities manager.

“You mean implants? Like electronic ankle bracelets on parolees?” asks someone.

“We’re talking asset management, fellas,” says the owner, looking around. He asks for the safety director. Up in her room checking emails, says someone. Bring her down, says the boss.

“Remember when you described to me the problems you have with accountability?” the owner says to the safety director when she arrives. “That was a couple years ago,” she says. “Probably the last time we talked.” “Whatever. I’ve got your solution. It’s called My-Bodyguard or Lifeguard or Urban Tracker. There’s all kinds out there.”

It’s not the first time safety has walked in on a meeting with decisions already made. But what’s with these names?

“Safety always pulls up the rear applying new technology, we all know that,” says the owner. “Well, now we’ve got a high-tech way to wipe out almost all our safety problems,” he explains. “Research tells me 67 percent of employers now use some kind of electronic monitoring. Did you know global positioning systems are being used to track children, cattle, military movements, probationers, VIPs, taxis, garbage truck drivers, and Alzheimer’s patients?”

In Oakland, California, a GPS tracking system tells the city how long it takes road crews to fill a pothole, offers the marketing manager.

“Now that’s accountability,” beams the owner.

It’s big in healthcare, says the research manager. Thousands of nurses now wear badges that use infrared light for location tracking.

“We did a Google search while we waited for you,” says the HR chief. “These digital guardians are even being tagged on lawn mowers by landscaping crews.”

Blinded by the fix

Blindsided again, thought the safety director. It’s always scary when management brainstorms about safety fixes. “So you want to implant our workforce? I’ll need to check the privacy laws.”

“Don’t bother,” pipes in legal counsel. “In the vast majority of invasion of privacy cases, courts have ruled in favor of employer-defendants, finding a reduced expectation of privacy in the workplace and that an employer’s business interests outweigh an employee’s privacy interest — unless of course you place a surveillance camera inside a bathroom or something like that. Otherwise, we’re clean.”

An impatient look darkens the owners brow. This is an unusually long discussion to have about safety. “Think of all the safety issues this takes off the table,” he says. “We don’t need employees with checklists looking over each other’s shoulders. We don’t even need supervisors on the prowl. One person at a command console can map and monitor the whole facility.”

“We can set up geofences anywhere we want,” explains the IT chief. “Or reverse geofences.”

“Geo what?” asks the safety director.

A geofence is an invisible boundary, like those dog fences, set around the person tagged with the personal locating device, explains IT. If they move outside their zone, command and control software signals an alert. A reverse geofence defines a no-go zone on a facility map. An unauthorized person enters that zone and they get…

“Zapped like a barking dog?” asks the safety director. “I have trouble with all this, guys. We’re trying to build a culture of trust here. Treating employees like dogs won’t help.”

Think of the possibilities

“Don’t think animals, think children,” counters the owner. “A lot of this pinpointing is done out of love,” he says. Or paranoia, the safety director mutters under her breath. “This thing, the KidBug, has a button to call mom, another to call dad. It’s for their safety,” says the owner.

“Think about it. You could block unauthorized personnel from confined spaces,” says the facilities manager. You could nab employees speeding on forklifts, or on their way home. You always want us to do more for off-the-job safety. Think how much more we’d know about risks they take at home. When they’re on ladders. When they’re out biking or climbing.”

“We could set up geofences around accident-prone workers,” suggests HR. “For their own protection, of course. You could write personalized safety rules for ’em, where they can go and where they can’t, and program tracking software to alert us when they’re breaking rules. Damn, now this is being proactive!”

The safety director frowns. “I’ve seen research on the effects of electronic monitoring in call centers. It stresses out people. You get complaints about anxiety, fatigue, numbness, even depression.”

“Think positive,” says the owner. “GPS will be fabulous for tracking our solo workers. We’ll monitor who attends safety meetings, who goes to training class. We’ll follow our volunteer inspectors, see how thorough their audits really are.”

“This will show our employees we care, just like wanting to know where our kids are,” says HR. “It’s about caring. And it will improve safety. And who knows, maybe it lowers headcount and saves us some beans.”

The safety director twitches, like always, when headcount comes up. “How’s that?” she asks.

Maybe we don’t need as many supervisors, or that fat BBS contract, who knows, says HR.

The safety director leaves the team of execs poolside and heads back to her room. I say I’m overworked and can’t be everywhere, she thinks to herself. They say, put leashes on employees. Problem is, we never talk about safety long enough to get past the quick fixes.

— Dave Johnson, Editor