Social distancing tech hits construction sites and factory floors

Can employee monitoring keep workers safe?
Can employee monitoring keep workers safe?
Image: Reuters/Francois Lenoir
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Construction workers across the United States may soon be required to wear a device on their hard hats that emits an alarm if they come within six feet of another employee at a job site. As they get closer, the alarm gets louder.

The tool, called Proximity Trace, doesn’t just function as a loud reminder for workers to practice the social distancing guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It will also give employers a road map to perform contact tracing. The device relies on ultra high frequency radio signals, used in police and ham radios, to give employers a list of workers who came into contact with each other.

If a construction worker is found to be infected with Covid-19, employers can pull up historical data that identifies which employees came into contact with them and when. Triax Technologies, the company behind Proximity Trace, already develops tools that let construction companies and other industries track a worker’s location, attendance, and even their performance.

As shelter-in-place orders went into effect in the US, most states and cities ruled that construction was an essential industry. Construction sites have deployed safety measures, asking workers to stay six feet apart and disinfecting job sites. But keeping your distance at a construction site can be easier said than done. Some construction tasks can’t be performed at all while maintaining a distance. Many tasks, such as rigging and hoisting or operating a crane, already carry a high risk of bodily injury and require close supervision.

“It was pretty clear to everybody that we have to minimize exposure to workers,” said Triax CEO Robert Costantini in an interview with Quartz. After hearing from clients, the company began working on a device that could perform both contact tracing and remind workers to practice social distancing. The Proximity Trace device is currently being field tested at a construction site in New Jersey, and will soon be available on a commercial basis.

Construction likely won’t be the only industry that uses Proximity Trace, or a device that is similar to it. Constantini told Quartz that other industries have inquired about the use of the device in their workplace, but wouldn’t specify which ones.

As nations around the world look at opening their economies, social distancing will remain a daily practice. As schools, restaurants, and other non-essential workplaces open back up, they’ll be asked to deploy strict measures to minimize the spread of the virus. Employee monitoring, already an area of controversy before the pandemic, may become more common in both non-essential and essential workplaces.

Amazon has already deployed machine learning software in its security cameras to ensure that warehouse workers stay at least six feet apart. The startup Landing AI has designed a “social distancing tool” that can integrate with CCTV cameras. Workers at an Antwerp port are testing a wristband that emits a warning signal if they come within five feet of each other.

A rise in employee monitoring may raise concerns that such technology could be abused, or violate a worker’s privacy. Jeffrey Hirsch, a professor of law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said he’s noticed a rise in the use of workplace monitoring tools by employers in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. With some narrow exceptions, such employee monitoring is legal in the US.

“If an employer says to the employee, you need to wear this device or you can’t work here, the employer can pretty much do it,” said Hirsch in an interview with Quartz.

But such technology could also play a vital role in keeping workers safe and performing contact tracing as businesses reopen. Hirsch stressed that the use of workplace monitoring wasn’t “black and white,” and that regulators should work on emphasizing the benefits of such technology while minimizing its drawbacks whenever possible.

Workplaces, now responsible for employee safety during a pandemic, will be asked to do their part to keep the virus from spreading. Employers will have more freedom to monitor employees as a result. In the US, the EEOC has already ruled that employers can inquire about a worker’s Covid-19 symptoms, require them to disclose if they’re infected, and conduct mandatory temperature checks.

“Where the worry is that it’s still the Wild West. Workers don’t have much choice if they want to keep their jobs,” said Hirsch.