How IoT Could Make Returning to Work Safer

November 2, 2020 - 7 minutes read

While many San Francisco-based companies like Google, Uber, and Airbnb have pushed their return-to-work date back to July 2021, there are companies and schools reopening much earlier around the U.S. To ensure the safety and protection of the returning students, customers, employees, and distributors, we need to implement strong, proven plans. Many businesses and schools have used a combination of intervention and prevention plans.

The former consists of manual contact tracing, while the latter consists of social distancing, using masks, and frequent deep sanitation. But these measures aren’t sufficient enough to help people and children avoid contracting the coronavirus. We need a technology-based solution that makes things more streamlined and reliable.

What’s Digital PPE?

We can use Internet of Things (IoT) applications to reliably trace and monitor contact tracing and encourage social distancing between children and employees. This type of protection, being not entirely physical, is known as digital PPE (personal protective equipment). When left to humans, contact tracing is incredibly overwhelming, prone to errors, and time-consuming. What’s worse is that when a human makes an error, even if it’s small, it can result in a massive spread of the virus. By offloading this intensive task to technologies like IoT, we can focus our energy on other efforts.

Health experts have stated that sanitation, masks, and contact tracing aren’t sufficient enough to safely return to work. With digital PPE, we can utilize network protocols, which are already highly precise, to alert people who are standing too close to each other, provide etiquette reminders, and implement more accurate contact tracing.

It can work reliably and safely for an office that spans several cubicles or one that spans several floors to help prevent false positives and false negatives. If an employee is diagnosed falsely with COVID-19, the employer experiences two weeks of reduced productivity. Even worse are false-negative results: an employee could effectively infect their entire workplace if they’re misdiagnosed as not having COVID-19. This mistake could shut down an entire business, forcing all employees to quarantine for two weeks, and it could cause many more businesses to shut down.

Digitizing Contact Tracing

A survey conducted by Data Studio found that 40% of people leave their homes to go to an office. In that group, 31% don’t wear masks all the time due to discomfort or forgetting pandemic social etiquette. 38% of people surveyed admitted that they don’t social distance, and 20% of workplaces weren’t able to enforce or support social distancing. These numbers are concerning, especially for employees who have pre-existing conditions or live with at-risk family members.

With IoT, companies can digitize and supplement social distancing guidelines with contact tracing. There are two ways to digitize contact tracing: through Bluetooth low energy and through ultra wideband.

Bluetooth low energy (BLE)

The BLE method uses (you guessed it) Bluetooth connectivity to calculate the distance between itself and the nearest Bluetooth signal. The signal can be coming from a phone or from a standalone Bluetooth tag.

Google and Apple have already developed a framework called the Exposure Notification System that uses BLE to track contact tracing. This BLE solution is cheap and easy to manage, but it’s prone to error and has data privacy concerns. BLE, in general, can be prone to error: location distance calculations can be off by up to 6.5 feet.

IoT app development

Since social distancing mandates 6 feet, BLE is seemingly untrustworthy and could result in the spread of the virus if trusted blindly. Studies also show that Americans are distrusting of BLE software, not to mention their lack of trust in the tech giants. When utilizing a provider’s solution, we’re forced to trust their processes, privacy practices, and results blindly.

Ultra-wideband (UWB)

Ultra-wideband technology is a radio technology that utilizes low-energy for short-range, high-bandwidth communication over the radio. It can effectively calculate the distance between two parameters and report on the location. The best part? Its error is as low as 4 inches, making it much more accurate than BLE technology.

UWB is less likely to experience noise interference, which makes it perfect for indoor use, like in an office, factory, or school. For social distancing and contact tracing, indoor use is always going to be most important since the virus has less air circulation to move through. In most cases, UWB is the preferred and superior solution for digitized PPE.

Prioritizing Safety in the Return to Work

Both BLE and UWB solutions will incur a cost per employee or child, but many providers offer these technologies at a cheap rate: as low as $100/user. That cost, even though it adds up, is negligible compared to the cost of a false negative employee causing a major outbreak at the company. Experts say many companies spend more than that on keeping the office kitchen stocked with snacks and coffee.

Because the virus spreads so quickly and leaves the infected with permanent lung damage, we must mitigate the spread and risk of infection. By implementing technology like IoT, we can fortify pandemic requirements of social distancing, sanitizing, masks, and contact tracing. Digital PPE greatly reduces and organizes social contacting, while reminding people to socially distance, wear masks, and follow sanitization rules.

Have you gone back to work in the office? Is your company encouraging masks and social distancing? Let us know in the comments below!

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