Getting Back to Work Safely: IoT to the Rescue

What do prison guards, dental hygienists, and barbers have in common?

They all have jobs that rely on physical proximity and carry a high risk of exposure to diseases, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

At the time of writing this article, COVID-19 is still ravaging the U.S., but here in the Netherlands—my home country—we have entered a quiet period. Queues in front of shops are gone, and the signs and demarcation lines on floors to facilitate distancing have disappeared. The streets fill up, traffic jams occur more frequently, and with people moving back into the shops, restaurants, and offices, life seems to be back to normal. 

Unfortunately, we all know that is not the case. A second wave is looming on the horizon.

Keeping Economies Open

The second wave will be nastier, but now we are better prepared with new knowledge about testing, wearing masks, and the use of appropriate medical treatments. Before, governments had no option but to shut down economies. We all know now how devastating that was, and it is something no country can endure regularly. We must keep economies open.

But how do you do that when a high percentage of your workforce is in facilities where they are too near others? You could put demarcation lines in place again, hand over the PPE (personal protective equipment), ask everyone to wash their hands—but is that enough? The biggest problem is that—even if you do all those things—as an employer, you still have no clue about whether people really adhere to those guidelines and rules.

Pros and Cons of Mobile Apps

Some are looking for mobile apps for assistance. Just yesterday, I heard about an app that alerts you when someone is coughing or sneezing near you. But I wonder how helpful that will be. The German government now has a smartphone app for use by all citizens. It will help to build up a contact chain using Bluetooth and notify you if someone you have been in close contact with has come down with COVID-19 so you can take appropriate action.

While promising, these apps have a number of drawbacks and are of no use for employers. Why? There are a lot of concerns about privacy. After all, a mobile phone is capable of tracking much more than just data about contact with others. There are worries that this could lead to someone listening into your conversations or reading your emails, etc. However unlikely this may be, these apps face an uphill battle.

For these reasons, Google and Apple—as OS providers—limit Bluetooth access for normal apps. Bluetooth can only be used by standard apps, with the consent of the user, and if the apps are running in the foreground.

In order to facilitate the new government-based COVID-19 apps, Google and Apple had to come up with a special Bluetooth function—to which only dedicated, official bodies can get access.

In other words, any mobile app will be useless for employers. Even if there were an app, would employees be willing to download it on their mobile phones? Would they carry the phone visibly so others could see that the tracking is active? Would the other employees’ Bluetooth app be on? Would the app be in the foreground and running? Would the battery last long enough for the whole workday? And would mobile phones be allowed in every workplace? There are so many questions.

IoT to the Rescue

Still, technology using Bluetooth is promising. Why? Because mobile phones are not the only devices with Bluetooth. There are many cheap, IoT-enabled devices out there that have Bluetooth functionality, too. The standard name for them is Bluetooth beacons.

Bluetooth device vendors are now coming up with smart social distancing solutions based on these beacons—IoT to the rescue! Using IoT devices instead of mobile apps solves many of the aforementioned challenges. Dedicated devices do not measure anything else, and they don’t identify exact locations—they only measure proximity. The user can wear them visibly at all times, and the battery life is known. There are already a multitude of suppliers entering the market, and the prices and functionality they provide vary widely.

With the possibility of additional waves of the virus looming on the horizon, and the unwillingness to lock down economies and society again, IoT might come to the rescue through these smart social distancing solutions. Over time, I believe that these Bluetooth devices will replace the tsunami of new COVID-19 mobile apps currently being developed. What do you think?


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