The Tech Keeping Workers 6 Feet Apart

June 15, 2020

A mix of apps, scanners and sensors are helping staff return to work safely


Courtesy of New Lab

Getting a little too close to your coworker? This device will let you know.

In Newlab's building at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, roughly 110 essential workers who reported to the office during the pandemic have tied on fabric harnesses and iPhone-size sensors that vibrate and flash when the employees are less than 6 feet apart—the transmission range for Covid-19.

The device, from StrongArm Technologies, a startup at the Navy Yard, also logs how close and for how long the people came into contact. That information could be vital for understanding where and when a worker was exposed if he or she tests positive for Covid-19.

"The first challenge for us was, how do you keep people 6 feet apart?" Shaun Stewart, CEO of Newlab, an 84,000-square-foot center for startups in advanced manufacturing, said. "The second is, how can we contact trace if we need to?"

Newlab, home to 800 engineers and entrepreneurs at full capacity, is among the many city employers and landlords seeking new ways to prevent the spread of Covid-19 as more employees return to the office. Up to 400,000 New Yorkers are expected to head back to their workplace during the first phase of economic reopening. By July, millions more office workers could be called back.

Those employees likely will return to a mix of wearable technologies, foot-traffic sensors, symptom-tracking apps and automatic temperature scanners. Everything from walking through the door to heading to the restroom could become tech-enabled.

About 80% of companies changed workplace safety protocols last month, and about a quarter of firms invested in new technology for social distancing and contact tracing, according to a PwC survey of 288 chief financial officers in May.

Technology companies are adjusting their business model to meet that demand. The main business for StrongArm is developing wearable technology that keeps industrial and warehouse workers safe from injury. StrongArm devices monitor the movements of workers for Walmart and Toyota, among other companies, and send warnings about actions that risk long-term injury.

Many industrial and warehouse employees were deemed essential and have kept reporting to work through the pandemic, motivating employers to find ways to prevent the types of outbreaks reported at meatpacking plants and some e-commerce warehouses.

Of StrongArm's clients, "the majority believe this is a 12- to 18-month exercise, so they need a long-term solution," said CEO Sean Petterson.

Office demand

StrongArm has fielded inquiries from white-collar managers, but Petterson said the firm is focused for now on its current industrial clients.

A long list of companies are developing technologies to meet demand in offices, however. New apps host employee surveys to monitor possible exposure. Bluetooth-enabled wristbands provide warnings when employees come to close, similar to the device StrongArm provides.

At Industrious, a flexible-workspace competitor to WeWork, E-Z Pass–style scanners will check workers for fever as they enter. Newlab has a similar system, developed by Brooklyn startup Norbert Health. The scanners use a mix of radar and infrared technology to instantly scan workers' vital signs, including heart and breathing rate.

Norbert launched last year out of Newlab with a focus on developing vital sign monitoring technology that would allow families to more easily check on elderly relatives.

"But that needs to be the second step, because returning-to-work applications are what the world most dramatically needs right now," said Alexandre Winter, the company's CEO and co-founder.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended all office buildings check temperatures at the door each day. An executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives landlords the right to deny entry to those who refuse a fever scan.

The rules for technologies that monitor social distancing are less established. Risa Boerner, a partner with the law firm Fisher Phillips, said employers are increasingly asking for advice on wearables and other devices that can track Covid-19 exposure.

"They are trying to find the solution that protects their workforce but is also safest from a privacy standpoint," said Boerner, who is chair of the firm's data security and workplace privacy practice group.

Companies need to consider how much data the devices are collecting on employees, where that data is stored and who has access to it, she said. Employers are required to develop a data security program for any information they store about their workers and visitors under a state law passed last year.

About 82% of people working in Newlab—who are not direct employees but members— have opted to wear the sensors.

Some have declined out of privacy concerns, Stewart said. StrongArm says employers can't access the data for punitive purposes. Managers receive reports only on incidents that could have created exposure to the virus.

"I need to know your proximity to risk from front door to back door," Petterson said. "I do not need to know how long you took for your smoke break."

Surveillance is hardly new to the workplace. Cameras and monitors are common in offices and on factory floors. Personalized RFID key cards open doors and security gates in most Manhattan office towers, creating trackable data.

Manhattan startup Actuate uses the closed-circuit cameras already installed in buildings for its social-distancing technology. The firm launched two years ago with an artificial intelligence platform that can detect through surveillance video when someone is carrying a firearm. The same technology can detect and catalog instances when employees stand closer than 6 feet apart.

The company uses the data to build a heat map of where employees are most likely to make close contact.

"We don't think employers or employees want instant alerts when people get too close," said Ben Ziomek, co-founder and chief product officer. "But we can tell them the areas where employees are having trouble keeping apart, and they can adjust staff or furniture to make it easier."

The bathroom factor

Companies such as Humanyze, meanwhile, already represent a growing niche in real estate, using sensor data to understand how people move throughout an office. That data can help companies adjust their office design by better tracking natural gathering places for employees.

Clients could use that same technology to keep people apart. The sensors can uncover bottlenecks and other areas where employees are likely to break social distancing.

"This can also tell an employer that, look, here is an area of the office you need to sanitize more frequently," said Ben Waber, the company's president.

While most offices are pushing desks and furniture 6 feet apart, that won't matter if people can't walk to the bathroom or get out the door without bumping into someone, noted James Wynn, a director of Gensler's Intelligent Places division.

The international design firm is using software that analyzes floor plans and makes suggestions to allow better circulation. That is combined with sensors providing insights into how offices are used in real time.

"This is a whole frontier focused on making buildings more responsive to inhabitants," Wynn said. "That could be signage that directs you to go one way or another, based on the density at that time: 'Follow the left path, not the right, where there are more people.' 'Don't go to this bathroom; it is full.' "

The bathroom is a whole other challenge, as Newlab found. Stewart said workers feared they could stumble into rooms filled beyond the point where social distancing is possible. But no one wants any sort of surveillance in the bathroom.

Norbert Health's radar sensors also may help there. The company's radar can detect through the bathroom wall whether people are in there, identifying shapes rather than individuals.

The company is still developing the application, but Winter said workers eventually could check through their work intranet—or via a monitor near the door—whether the bathroom is available.

The hope is to replace the old-fashioned knock as well as potential crowding, Winter said, "without having to go in—the exact thing you want avoid."