HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Companies getting ready to bring back their workforce face an unprecedented challenge as they work out how to keep employees safely apart and prevent further spread of coronavirus.
“We kind of quickly learned as we’re starting to implement different social distancing practices in the plant, that even if you tell people that you need to adhere to them, it’s hard to do. You know, when you even go into the grocery store, you know you’re supposed to maintain 6 feet, but all of a sudden you’re like 3 feet from somebody and you just forget, because habit change is hard,” explained Fleetwood President and CEO Jason Grant. “Our electronics team then kind of hearing that said, ‘Well, we, we can solve that.’”
STREAMLINING THE SEARCH
The lightweight device is worn by each employee much like a work badge, preferably on a worker’s chest where it’s highly visible to others.
When a worker comes within 6 feet of another employee, the badges will flash red and vibrate to warn them they are too close.
Grant said the badges “communicate” with one another. After a minute of prolonged contact, each employee’s badge starts storing data about who they came in close contact with, when it happened and the duration of the contact.
When an employee gets ready to leave work, they stop by an iPad kiosk and scan the QR code of their Instant-Trace badge. The encrypted data from their badge is then uploaded to an Amazon storage cloud, where it’s aggregated and saved for two weeks.
Grant said that data streamlines the contract-tracing process if an employee falls ill with COVID-19.
“So in a situation where you have a confirmed case on site, your HR department, a company leader can take that employee’s ID, type it into our system, and it’ll give you a report of every person that that employee came within close proximity to in the previous 14 days. It gives you a really great, easy starting point to figure out which employees you might want to consider sending home,” Grant said.
The Instant-Trace badge also allows company officials to see who may need more guidance about social distancing or if they need to alter the work environment.
“The way we’ve been thinking about this as a leadership team is until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, companies are going to need to function with the potential for it to show up on site for at least the next 12 to 18 months. So we’re fully expecting to continue to have our employees adhere to social distancing practices and hand hygiene practices and wearing masks and all of the other things that were done to try to keep people safe,” Grant said.
To protect employees’ privacy, the badge doesn’t track the worker’s location, just their proximity to other employees. Grant says the encrypted data is accessible only to designated employees from the customer company.
Grant says his company has had experts of the Health insurance Portability and Accountability Act and those with a better understanding of workplace safety and health laws “and we haven’t identified any concerns.”
Grant said Instant-Trace badges use wireless sensing technology, which Fleetwood Electronics has decades of experience in creating. A team of about a dozen people started designing the badge about four to six weeks ago.
While the badges are not waterproof, Grant said they can be worn on the inside clothing or covered with a plastic bag to protect them.
Each badge is expected to run for about two months on a standard coin battery, in part because the badge “sleeps” when motionless. When the badge battery gets low, the employee will be notified at the iPad kiosk and an alert will also go out to the designated program managers within the company that a replacement battery is needed.
The badge is also designed to hold up to three days of data if an employee forgets to scan out at the end of their shift.
‘INUNDATED WITH INTEREST’
Now that word is getting out about the badges, Fleetwood Electronics says its getting inquiries from as far away as Italy.
“This was a problem that people all over the country are trying to solve, including people in other countries. And it’s only been in the last few days that we’ve actually started creating awareness that this, that this even exists and we’ve been inundated with interest,” Grant said.
While Apple and Google are working on using smartphones for contract-tracing, Grant said Instant-Trace badges were designed with the manufacturing industry in mind.
“We have employees that don’t actually have personal cellphones, and very few of our employees actually have a paid company cellphone. So the idea of asking them to download an app for company purposes on their personal cellphone just … didn’t feel right to us, and we’re expecting wouldn’t really be appropriate for other companies, either,” Grant said.
The employee-owned company expects to ship out its first order of Instant-Trace badges in mid- to late May.
The badges are $99 each with a minimum order of 50. Grant says companies must provide their own iPad, but the app to scan the badges and the cloud service to store and retrieve the data are free.
Grant says the decision to create Instant-Trace badges isn’t about Fleetwood’s bottom line.
“We didn’t do this as a pivot to try to replace lost sales. Our business is really solid right now. We did this because first and foremost, we wanted to do everything we could to protect our employees and make sure that they had the safest and healthiest environment possible to come back to,” Grant said.
“Right now, we’re just trying to figure out how we can keep employees safe and really help get our country back to work again,” he added.