Wearables Enable Distancing, Contact Tracing at Work

By Dave Zielinski June 3, 2020
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man using wearable device

​The gradual migration of employees back to the workplace has forced organizations to get creative in how they protect worker safety. Some employers are asking workers to wear devices that prompt physical distancing by alerting workers when they come within 6 feet of one another and collect data to help determine possible exposure to the coronavirus.

"Wearable-device providers have developed solutions that can help employees social distance … as well as provide analytical data, like contact tracing," said J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

One such provider is San Francisco-based Estimote, which makes small, wireless devices that hang around employees' necks and vibrate if the employees get too close to each other. The devices also register direct contact to help identify exposed employees if a worker becomes symptomatic or tests positive for COVID-19.

Halo is a similar wearable device from Proxxi in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It is a wristband that vibrates when other employees who are also wearing the band come within a 6-foot perimeter. The device keeps records of interactions with other bands, allowing managers to see which employees have been in contact, when and how many times. Halo wristbands sell for $100 each and include a Web dashboard reporting system to analyze contact-tracing data, according to the Proxxi website.

Some of these wearable devices originated in the construction, manufacturing and home health care industries and have been adapted for use in other workplace environments, Gownder said. Care Predict in Plantation, Fla., is one organization that has pivoted to contact tracing.  

"Care Predict began as a company that conducts in-home monitoring for seniors and now has devices that allow nursing home facilities to do comprehensive contact tracing," Gownder said. "The products not only allow facilities to know where residents have been, but how long they spent there and what path they took."

Some organizations also have deployed products in the workplace that measure employee health signals such as body temperature, Gownder said. New York-based Equivital makes body-worn sensors that can measure skin temperature, breathing rate or heart rate and connects to an external sensor to store and transmit data.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Companies interested in tracing employees' COVID-19 exposure also have a growing number of smartphone apps to select from. Such apps benefit from the built-in sensors that some smartphones have, Gownder said.

"[The apps are] everything from Bluetooth to location-based sensors and beaconing technology," he said. "These sensors have become cheaper than they once were at scale, so companies can use them for many different purposes, including trying to understand if certain work environments are safe for employees."

Privacy and Legal Issues

Legal experts say using wearables to encourage physical distancing or to contact trace creates potential privacy and legal issues that human resources leaders and their legal counsel should address before deploying the devices.

"Any time you're collecting data about worker location, wellness or health, it's important that the company understand exactly what the technology is doing, what information is being collected, who has access to it, and how the privacy and security of that information is being maintained," said Jenn Betts, a labor and employment attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Pittsburgh.

She noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently said organizations could take employees' temperatures in light of COVID-19 concerns, and some wearables gauge this metric in addition to registering workers' proximity to one another. Measuring body temperature is typically considered a medical exam, she said, and the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits such examinations unless they're job-related and consistent with business necessity.

"I've still been cautioning clients that whenever they're doing anything related to temperature checking or symptom checking, to consult the latest guidance from the EEOC to ensure whatever technology or tool they're using is in compliance with employee protections," Betts said.

Organizations also need to ensure they're appropriately storing and protecting data collected by wearable devices. Risa Boerner, a partner and the chair of the data security and workplace privacy practice at Fisher Phillips law firm in Philadelphia, said laws such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the General Data Protection Regulation can apply when collecting data on employee health or location.

Companies that must follow the CCPA need to take special precautions. "They'd want to get consent before wearables are used, as well as explain why and how any collected data will be used," she said.

Certain state laws define medical and health data as protected information that needs to be tightly secured and protected against data breaches. If that information is hacked or inadvertently disclosed, employers are responsible for quickly notifying employees, and there's potential for litigation, Boerner said.

"As a general matter, an employer probably wants to store and retain as little of this information as possible for as short a period as possible," she said. Some wearable technologies automatically delete collected information after a specified length of time, she added.

Wearable-device maker Estimote states on its website that all employee interactions from its devices are stored anonymously, and a list of exposed employees is generated only when COVID-19 symptoms are reported. Proxxi states that no personally identifiable information is shared with the company or between its Halo wristbands.

Gownder said that companies deploying wearable devices must take these legal and privacy issues seriously. "Presumably, in many cases, workers will be willing to trade some privacy around their movement for a safer working environment," he said. "But employee privacy is something companies need to address upfront or negotiate with unions, and also ensure they understand different privacy regulations in other countries or geographies. The use of wearable devices should be done as transparently as possible."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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