HOW WEARABLES ARE KEEPING EMPLOYEES SAFE ON JOBSITES AND PROJECTS MOVING
BY MICHAEL GIUSTI
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, DPR Construction was facing a challenge many contractors were experiencing. A rash of infections had popped up at a San Diego jobsite that threatened their ability to stay on schedule.
Ignoring the pandemic wasn’t an option, so instead, they started looking for solutions.
One option that was intriguing to Gary Scholten, innovation lead for San Diego at DPR Construction, a member of multiple AGC chapters, was automating contact tracing. Finding an automated solution fit into DPR’s culture of innovation, so they started evaluating their options. They landed on a card-based tracker made by Contact Harald.
Each card contained a small Bluetooth transponder, which recorded any time two cards came within six feet of each other for more than two minutes.
If someone then became ill, that person’s card could download every proximity “event,” allowing human resources to alert any close contact that they needed to quarantine.
“It is just a great tool,” Scholten says.
DPR is not alone. Many firms in the construction industry have also turned to wearable devices as a contact tracing solution.
Matias Monges, head of business and operations at New South Wales, Australia-based Contact Harald said that they have close to 200 com-panies worldwide who are using their cards — many of which are in the construction industry.
Triax Technologies, based in Norwalk, Connecticut, has another wearable contact tracing device custom made for the construction industry, called TraceTag, in use at more than 277 jobsites, including National Steel City, an Alabama AGC member.
Yet another widely used wearable is the SafetyTag system by Austin, Texas-based BlueCats.
Choosing an automated solution for contact tracing was easy for Bob Dunn, CEO for National Steel City.
“First and foremost, our goal is to keep our employees safe and healthy,” Bob Dunn says. “We are always asking, ‘What can we do to keep them safe?’”
Robert Costantini, president and CEO of Triax Technologies, says adding a wearable contact tracing device is one more step in a series of ef-forts builders can do to keep their jobsites safe.
“This is part of a package of approach to COVID,” Costantini says.
A BETTER DETECTIVE
Early in the pandemic it became quickly obvious that the construction industry needed a solution that was better than relying on paper records and people’s memories.
“We really had to be a detective,” Scholten says. “We had people going around asking questions and finding who they might be in close contact with, going off memory, and people wondering, ‘Was it 15 minutes?’ ”
The contact tracing results were predictably unreliable.
Seeing a market need, the technology providers looked at their pipelines to see if any existing devices could be repurposed, or if anything could be fast tracked.
Any solution had to be tough, it had to be easy to use and unobtrusive, and it needed to have a long battery life.
BlueCats built their system with a rugged charging dock, like the systems used for handheld radios, and they built them equipped with a 30-day battery life. The devices clip onto a vest or hard hat and are designed to become one more piece of personal protective equipment.
The TraceTag by Triax comes equipped with an 85-decibel signal and a warning LED. When two tags come within close proximity, the tags begin to chirp and the light begins to flash, in addition to logging the close contact for later downloading. As the devices get closer still and remain for longer time periods, the chirping becomes louder as a real-time feedback for the wearer.
Then, later, when the tag moves within range of a device the company installs on site called a Cloud Pod, the tag uploads its contact infor-mation for later reference.
BlueCats’ SafetyTag also comes equipped with a real-time feedback element. When two tags come within six feet of each other, they emit an audible buzz, a visible flash, and a vibration, in addition to recording as many as 100,000 close contacts, which can later be uploaded when the device is near their Prox Point gateway.
Contact Harald went for simplicity in their design, foregoing the real-time feedback in exchange for flexibility and battery life.
The Contact Harald cards still record the close contacts on a rolling 20-day basis, but they are only uploaded in the event that someone on the site becomes ill, in which case the cards are scanned to download all close contacts. That tradeoff has meant that Contact Harald cards have a battery life of around six months.
The on-site requirements of the different systems depend largely on their functionality.
For example, because Contact Harald is simply logging proximity events, all that is required is an iPad to initially set up the card and to download the contacts in the case of a positive COVID test.
Because they are uploading the contacts more regularly, both Triax and BlueCats require gateways at the jobsite to interface with their tags.
Those gateways could be spread throughout the site to give a more real-time report of contacts, or they could be limited to high-traffic areas, such as break rooms, or even just at entrance points for the jobsite.
With DPR’s setup, an on-site safety coordinator hands out badges whenever someone new comes to the site.
“The only thing they ask for is name, phone number, or email,” Scholten says. “Once the person has the card, they just wear it.”
Companies can choose to associate the wearables with people’s names, or they can just use a randomized serial number to increase privacy.
Best practice is to have everyone who visits a jobsite — employee, contractor, even a visitor — to be outfitted with a wearable.
“You never know who is going to be infected,” Monges says.
Companies that use the systems have tended to find that, beyond being an effective contact tracing tool, they have led to an overall posi-tive behavior change.
“It drove the behaviors we were looking for,” Scholten says.
Even without the real-time feedback, he says that just having the devices on was a reminder to take distancing seriously.
“Everyone felt a little safer and felt like they were more cognizant of being in close proximity, because they knew the badge was there,” Scholten says.
Costantini says that their data has shown that companies that begin to use their tags with the real-time feedback quickly see improvements.
“We are seeing people more than halve the number of close interactions in a very short time,” Costantini says. “It quickly changes the way they do their work.”
That immediate feedback was one of the main benefits that National Steel City saw when they implemented the Triax system.
“All of our employees embraced the idea in the context of what it was intended for and that it was keeping their people safe,” Bob Dunn says.
Using the technology has helped National Steel City work the entire year of the pandemic with zero incidents, zero injuries and zero lost time.
“That is a goal we have met before, but in the pandemic, that is particularly notable,” Bob Dunn says.
One of the common concerns raised by companies considering wearables was how their employees would react to a perceived loss of pri-vacy and an intrusive monitoring system.
Particularly with solutions that would be based on a mobile phone, that would be a concern, with mobile devices being notorious for spying on their users, even when off site or off the clock.
That was one of the main selling points of the wearables.
Because their primary job is to simply record when another tag is within a set radius, most of these devices don’t have GPS or other loca-tion-based trackers, ensuring the employees’ privacy.
And because most are using unique serial numbers rather than identifying information, even if a hacker were to access the data, it would be meaningless.
“We are not policing people on where they are and what they are doing,” Monges says.
Nathan Dunn, CEO at BlueCats, echoes that sentiment.
“The last thing we want to do is receive personal information. Anonymity was very important to us,” Nathan Dunn says.
On the other hand, some of the wearables can come equipped with some manner of location-based awareness, which can be particularly useful on specific jobsites, or to identify what areas need to be deep cleaned in the event of an infection.
FUTURE OF WEARABLES
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people in many industries to find elegant solutions, some of which may be destined to stick around.
Wearables as an extension of PPE may be one of those cases.
“A lot of customers are excited about how this can be extended moving forward,” Costantini says.
He says that beyond contact tracing, wearables have many applications in the realm of safety and productivity. For example, proximity sensors could warn people about hazardous locations, or if a particular client wanted parts of their property out of bounds to a construction crew. Or they can be used as safety beacons if someone finds themselves in trouble.
“Once you understand that wearables can be part of PPE, there are a whole host of things you can wrap around from a safety perspective,” Costantini says.
For their part, DPR had been experimenting with wearables, even before the pandemic. They piloted a sensor that warned workers if they walked away from their hard hat on a jobsite and they have been collaborating with Georgia Tech University’s safety wearable program.
“We are pretty excited to try new wearables,” Scholten says.
Nathan Dunn says that another construction client based in Canada even adopted their wearables in their corporate headquarters after seeing how effective they were on jobsites.
“It is all about anything to keep our people safe and healthy,” Scholten says.