As businesses start to reopen after the coronavirus pandemic closures, thermal scanning has gotten buzz as a tool to make the workplace safer. The technology uses infrared cameras that can detect elevated skin temperature from a distance, quickly and accurately. Fever is one known symptom of COVID-19.
Scanners are placed strategically near building entrances that employees, visitors, contractors or customers have to pass through. Depending on the user's preference, an audio or visual alarm is triggered when a higher-than-normal temperature is detected. An alert is sent through a mobile phone or computer system to the designated supervisor, avoiding the cost of having an employee check temperatures manually, said Christopher Ciabarra, co-founder of Athena Security in Austin, Texas, which sells thermal scanners.
A thermal scanner is not a medical device. It cannot detect COVID-19 or ensure that no one carrying the virus will enter the workplace. One study of over 30,000 people showed that only 12 percent who were infected had a fever of 100 degrees or higher. Plus, as many as 45 percent of people with COVID-19 have no symptoms but are still contagious.
Bert Brannen, a partner with Fisher Phillips, a labor and employment legal firm in Atlanta, advises small companies that the benefits of a scanner may be too slight to justify the cost. Temperature checks as a stand-alone screen miss the large majority of cases. Coughing, headaches and an inability to smell are far more common symptoms of the disease than fever, and taking ibuprofen before coming to work could mask a fever.
Nonetheless, thermal scanners may be worthwhile if crowds of people need to be screened at one time—such as at airports, sporting events, concerts or food-processing plants. Scanners may also be an effective first line of screening at any workplace when combined with other checks, such as having workers fill out risk-factor questionnaires before they enter the workplace and delivering consistent messaging that employees should stay home if they feel sick.
Zarir Erani, president of VenueScreen in Minneapolis, which sells thermal scanners, notes that having one tells employees that you care about their safety. "The product is designed to get people to feel comfortable about getting back to work. They are pleased a protocol is in place."
For smaller companies, he recommends a $2,500 "tablet scanner" for one-at-a-time screening. Other scanners may start at $15,000.
How It Works
Employers work with their vendor to choose the best placement for the scanner. Employees must remove their eyeglasses for the scan to be effective. The scanner translates the body's heat into visible light, which converts the heat values into colors on a digital display.
Before all this happens, employers should develop a plan about how to proceed if a high temperature is identified. If desired, an entrance door could be locked automatically before a staff member arrives, Ciabarra said.
A second temperature check is recommended for anyone who is flagged. The subsequent reading should be through a different method and in another location apart from others and where questions can be answered privately.
While scanners are accurate within .5 degrees, errors and false positives occur. Sitting in a hot car could raise your temperature, as could being pregnant. Or someone may have a fever due to a health issue other than COVID-19.
Ankoor Amin is innovation leader with DPR Construction in Austin. His company installed the Athena Security system, and over two weeks, there were two false alarms from up to 100 people entering the building each day.
"We did lots of communication about why we are doing this," Amin said. Best practices include informing employees about the entrance procedure and getting their consent. Some companies use acknowledgement and waiver forms for this purpose. Signage can also be posted at the building entrance to disclose the scanning requirement and policies.
Brannen tells employers to consult a lawyer before buying a scanner. Some states and municipalities have laws regulating biometric testing. Check in with unions in your organization, as well, he advised. And while thermal scanners do not collect personal data, take precautions not to violate privacy laws, and keep results confidential, he added.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has suspended restrictions on checking employee temperatures during the pandemic. And sending someone home if a high temperature is detected should be "no problem," Brannen said. Some who use the technology train a supervisor in conflict management to address concerns.
VenueScreen's Erani sees scanners as a way to "future-proof your company." They can protect employees during flu season, as well, he pointed out. Knowing that they will be scanned is a deterrent to people who might otherwise come to work feverish, he added.
Out of 350,000 people who have passed through VenueScreen scanners at various companies, Erani said, eight who were stopped from entering the workplace later tested positive for COVID-19. "The employer saves a ton of money from having to sanitize the workspace [if an infected employee enters]."
Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.