Wearable technology in manufacturing has been on a steady growth trajectory helping build smarter operations and enabling digital transformation. Manufacturers of every size and scale have clearly understood the future is increasingly digital with the ability to effectively collect and analyze large quantities of people data in near real-time. Still, it was seen as hype and a luxury.
Then COVID-19 appeared.
There is no question that the pandemic has fundamentally impacted how we live and work. Social distancing in a manufacturing environment is especially challenging where employees must work in teams or in close proximity to one another to help lift, carry, and assemble heavy materials or components. Vast numbers of people simply cannot stay home and keep manufacturing operations running. They have to be at work, and they have to work in close proximity.
The technology category that has seen an uptick as a result of the pandemic, is location trackers, environmental sensors, social distancing monitors and contact tracing solutions (13% in 2019 growing to 19% in 2020, IndustryWeek 2020 Technology Survey).
The growing acceptance of wearable contact tracing technology has been driven by adherence to local COVID-19 health regulations designed to protect employees. For many companies, the requirement to rapidly identify employees, visitors, contractors and vendors who had been exposed to an infected person remains inescapable.
However, now the operational benefits of this type of wearable technology are also being proven out. Where an organization can quickly and accurately deliver close contact and COVID-19 exposure reporting, they can limit operational shutdowns to identified areas. Companies without that capability are being forced to shut larger areas for longer, while manual contact tracing and broader deep-cleaning takes place.
In the past, the biggest challenge was finding the money to make the investment in wearable technology. Now with COVID-19, the cost of a single manufacturing line shutting down for a day can far outweigh the investment. The business case is now more compelling than ever.
While the level of awareness would suggest that manufacturers are rapidly moving to protect their people and operations, industry contact tracing uptake paints a different picture. This can largely be attributed to the vaccination program.
There is no doubt that across the manufacturing industry, many organizations have been watching the vast vaccine roll-out program with anticipation. The vaccine has huge potential to add another effective layer to the hierarchy of controls preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Yet a recent US Society for Human Resource Management survey (Navigating COVID-19, February 2021, SHRM) shows an alarming trend. The survey reveals that 40% of US employees will not get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to them. Of those, 70% said they would not get vaccinated even if their employer required it.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) establishes that employers have an obligation to provide a safe work environment for their employees, contractors, vendors and visitors. Employers further have responsibilities to identify and correct workplace hazards that will result in worker injuries and illnesses. In the context of COVID-19, it means business leaders need to understand the risks of people contracting the virus in their workplace and taking reasonable steps to prevent the spread.
With this backdrop, business leaders simply cannot rely on the COVID-19 vaccination program alone to manage their OSHA, legal and operational risks. Over the coming months as return to work programs accelerate, manufacturing leaders need to build COVID-19 Management Plans with control measures appropriate to their risks and operations.
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