Social Distancing in a Factory: Pros and Cons of Proximity Wearables
Distance has defined the COVID-19 pandemic. Staying six feet apart has become a staple in every workplace, and employers have worked diligently to find ways to promote social distance to reduce the spread of the virus. But people have a natural tendency to gravitate toward others. Even well-intentioned employees can accidentally spread the virus as they breach the six-foot bubble of their coworkers. It’s up to employers to help keep distance top-of-mind each and every day at work. That’s why the concept of proximity wearables is so appealing.
The concept is simple: a wristband or other low-profile wearable that an employee can slip on before his or her shift. Once on, it’s triggered by proximity to other such devices — in this case, when a six-foot distance is breached. Then, it’s a light, buzz, beep, or some other notification to remind the wearer to take a few steps back.
Proximity devices have a place in manufacturing
Manufacturing floors and facilities are abuzz with activity and movement. Unlike an office where desks serve as a home base for employees, factories enjoy more flux. Unfortunately, this means more opportunities for incidental interaction. Distancing wearables are an intriguing prospect that can help people self-manage distance, without bringing tremendous change to facilities layouts.
Manufacturing personnel are familiar with wearables. Wearables have been a routine part of manufacturing for decades and have only become more important in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s no surprise to see devices from companies like Iterate Labs, a Cornell-based startup, hitting factory floors so quickly. Manufacturing is a market that’s wearable-ready.
The problems with wearables
Despite the convenience and utility of wearables, they come with some big drawbacks — namely privacy issues. What if wearables collect employee-specific data to enable contact tracing? While that’s yet another positive for wearables during COVID-19, issues arise when it comes to anonymizing that data or containing it to workplace-specific areas.
There are issues of overzealous monitors as well. If two masked workers are repairing the same machine, they’re together by default. Their interaction may be safe, but their proximity wearables may be constantly triggered. It’s a distraction that could lead to hazards.
Finally, there are employee rights to consider. Although employees may not have a say in wearing masks, wearable technology treads into unprecedented territory. Employees may not appreciate the tracking element or the mandate that they need to wear certain technology.
Social distance is here to stay
Social distancing isn’t likely to disappear when COVID-19 dies off. In fact, it’s one trend likely to stick around as people realize the benefits to staying distant. From health and safety during cold and flu season, to maintaining personal space in the work environment, distance is becoming part of work. Wearables might just be the technology that emerges to enforce it.