Contact Tracing: Employee Safety is The Key to Factory Operational Excellence

As we start to move into the next phase of mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic, factories are going to open up again. However, hesitation is likely, especially given the number of outbreaks that have happened in meatpacking plants. The factory floor is not an easy place to practice social distancing and most factories are not designed to be operated remotely. Let’s look at how real-time contact tracing can help. 

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OSHA has released a number of guidelines to help factories navigate the emergency. They include flexible work hours, barriers between workstations, and wearing masks. But the fact remains that outbreaks in factories are going to be likely for a while, and these outbreaks have led to plants being shut down for days while they are deep cleaned and sanitized, which is a considerable cost. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a day to shut down and sanitize the building.
The best solution to this, in addition to promoting personal hygiene and following guidelines, is to track potential outbreaks early and isolate affected workers.Contact tracing” has become a buzzword, but it is key to ensuring that a plant does not experience a major outbreak.

What is Contact Tracing?

Contact tracing is a process that activates when you have a confirmed case of COVID (ideally lab-confirmed, but presumed cases should be considered as testing is not always available). The process involves tracking down everyone who has had close contact (within six feet for more than a couple of minutes) with the patient over the two weeks before the confirmation of the case. Those people can then be tested and/or isolated. This allows you to catch and isolate potential carriers even if they are asymptomatic or presymptomatic. With a disease that produces a high percentage of asymptomatic carriers, contact tracing is essentially the only way to avoid further extended shutdowns and balance the economy and public health.

Contact tracing slows an outbreak by removing potential sources of infection (or establishing that they are not infected through a negative lab test). Additionally, it can improve worker confidence by assuring them that infections will be tracked and that they will not be sent home without cause. This can help make employees more willing to come back to work, although it should be combined with transparency about procedures and good hygiene. It can also make visitors more comfortable about entering the building and interacting with employees, although social distancing should be maintained where possible.
Without contact tracing, it is not possible to keep a fast-moving, highly infectious virus under control, and it is simply not possible to safely and efficiently reopen plants. Nobody wants their factory to be on the news as the center of another outbreak.

How Can Factories conduct Contact Tracing?

Traditionally, contact tracing is done by interviewing the patient and then calling all of their contacts. This, of course, relies on human memory, which is often fallible. It is also a highly labor-intensive process. Human resources have to track down every employee who worked with the patient, and obviously you can’t count on people being where they are supposed to be at all times. Did they use the break room near their work station or did they trek somewhere else because it was out of coffee? Did they stop to chat with a coworker on their break? While micromanaging employee location tends to reduce morale, tracking it in this situation is absolutely vital from both a safety and a business perspective.

It also requires a level of agility that your staff may not have. It has to be done quickly and it is not always reliable. Before you know it, you’re having to send everyone home and shut down the plant for days. For small offices and workshops, manual contact tracing can work well, where everyone knows everyone and you have a relatively small number of employees and locations to deal with. For large factories, contact tracing is potentially cost-prohibitive.
Thankfully, there are ways to support contact tracing that reduce the amount of labor needed and increase speed. Modern technology can help by tracking the location of employees. You may already have systems in place to do this for purposes of productivity, making sure everyone evacuates in an emergency, accurate timekeeping, etc. Employee tracking can support many things, including in-building contact tracing.
Businesses should also be willing to be generous on paid sick time not only for people who are infected but for those in quarantine, including employees quarantined because of exposure elsewhere or exposure of a family member from whom they are unable to isolate themselves. Employees should be properly incentivized to report infection or exposure that happens off the clock and should never be penalized for doing so.

How Does Real-Time Tracking Support Contact Tracing?

Real-time tracking supports contact tracing by keeping track of the location of employees at all times. This means that you know the real (as opposed to planned) location of employees, and have an accurate record that does not depend on human memory. Badge-based tracking systems can track visitors as well as employees, and visitors are asked to provide their contact information so they can be reached in the event of an alert.
The tracking system records when people are within six feet of each other, and for how long. It does not take into account the use of masks and other protective gear, which may reduce the risk of infection. The layout needs to be programmed into the system, so it does not flag as close contact when people are on opposite sides of a wall or significant barrier.

Does it Require Additional Infrastructure?

If you are already using Bluetooth for employee and asset tracking, you can use that infrastructure and merely need to add software that helps assess risk and send appropriate alerts. Location-based solutions can give a graduated assessment of risk, allowing employees and supervisors to make meaningful decisions and reduce the cost of unnecessary testing or absenteeism.

Otherwise, contact tracing can also use existing Wi-Fi services, although Bluetooth tends to be more accurate. If you have been considering implementing real-time tracking now is a good time. The system can be integrated with asset tracking to help reduce losses, spot production bottlenecks, and improve procedures. This means that the infrastructure remains in place for other purposes and can easily be reactivated if there is a later wave of COVID or an outbreak of a different infectious disease. It can even be kept in place to help track more common threats, such as norovirus or Legionnaire’s disease, in a way that manual contact tracing cannot be, because of the higher expense. By reducing occupational exposure, it will continue to reduce absenteeism in the future.

How Does the System Work?

When an employee or visitor reports that they have tested positive for COVID-19, the system will check their contacts for the previous 14 days, and assess the amount of risk experienced by those contacts.
The system then informs supervisors so that exposed workers can be sent home. Potentially, as testing becomes cheaper and easier, on-site testing could be deployed to ensure that employees are tested before they leave the office. Visitors can be notified so they can make their own informed decisions. 
By notifying workers at high risk of exposure, the system reduces downtime, reduces the number of employees who have to be sent home, and saves money on testing. It can also be used to track locations where the employee spent a lot of time so that extra cleaning can be done as needed, particularly of high-touch areas.
The user will receive reports that support compliance and also help them keep track of places they have been. This can also be passed on to supervisors so that they can address risky behavior such as lingering in break rooms in close quarters. It can be used to enforce temporary closures of high-risk common areas such as kitchens, or assess actual use so that sanitation procedures can be optimized (which will remain useful long after the pandemic).

The BLE tags used in the badges are affordable enough that a lost badge or one not returned by a visitor is not a major cost. Badges can easily be distributed and collected and visitor badges can easily be sanitized or, alternatively, a phone app can potentially be used to reduce social contact further. Badges can also be used to facilitate contactless access, which also helps with infection control. has put together the COVID-19 Contact Tracer Webapp, which works with a Bluetooth-based employee, visitor badges,  that provides a report of people who are likely to have been exposed. This can then be used to determine who needs to be tested or isolated. The system is designed to control spread, reduce unnecessary testing, and decrease employee and visitor anxiety. It can also be used to improve sanitation and decontamination plans by tracking actual usage of high-touch areas. Our app provides compliance reports, shows locations on a layout so that actual contact can be determined, and ranks exposure in a graduated way for proper risk assessment. Contact us to find out more and schedule a demo.

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