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Keeping America’s factory floors safe – and productive – with contact tracing

November 10, 2020

Jeff Sorensen
Industrial Products Industry Leader, PwC US
John Karren
Industrial Products People & Organization Leader, PwC US

Millions of American workers are returning to workplaces in the US as worries over the trajectory of the COVID-19 virus persist. For industrials, following the safety protocols outlined by the CDC and industry groups has been a must for months now. Autoworkers have been returning to shop floors since mid-May, and in September the Institute for Supply Chain Management’s manufacturing employment index climbed to 49.6%, up from 42.1% in June. As more and more of the country’s 13 million manufacturing employees return to work, they’re encountering a very changed environment that includes regular temperature checks, social distancing, PPE, hand sanitizers and staggered shifts, to name a few.

But maintaining safety without sacrificing productivity presents challenges. For instance, confirmed cases have risen along the El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, border, which represents the highest concentration of US-run manufacturing plants.

Ramping up defenses against the virus is particularly important to manufacturers and other industrial enterprises – from automakers to electric utilities to military contractors – for whom working remotely is typically not an option.

Still, while employers are indeed making sweeping physical changes to keep their employees safe, some fear the country might be lagging on the contact-tracing front. In October, about 53,000 contract tracers were working in the US, well short of the 100,000 health experts estimate is needed. One problem hindering efforts is a reported lack of cooperation of those being traced. Indeed, a PwC survey in June found that only 29% of companies agreed that they would evaluate new tools to support workforce location tracking and contact tracing as they transition employees back to work. The lack of a well-coordinated, national contact-tracing program has left states and local governments to devise their own programs, with some more robust than others. Just consider Wisconsin which, during its COVID-19 spike in September, needed an estimated 9,000 tracers. It had just over 1,200.

The work of contact tracing in many instances, then, has generally become the work of school systems, local and state government and, increasingly, the private sector. Contact-tracing platforms such as Check-In, a product by PwC, operates on smartphones, standalone hardware devices and computers to collect anonymized proximity data. In addition to collecting data through its mobile app on smartphones, Check-In can collect data through hardware including a contact-tracing device (for those who do not – or cannot – carry a smartphone) and personal beacons (devices which can be used for guests and visitors). The app enables employer-authorized dashboard administrators to carry out a trace report – after an employee reports a positive COVID-19 test – to help identify other employees who may have been exposed. Ultimately, the employer is responsible for managing that direct communication to employees. This allows, in effect, the transparent view of potential trouble spots within the office environment – and also in hybrid environments – for example, a manufacturing facility with workers occupying both the shop floor and offices, or even employees outside the company’s “geofence.”

For any contact-tracing initiative to be successful, it must be coordinated. For industrials, that means not only tracing those geofenced on the workplace premises, but those in the field or on the road (maintenance and repair specialists, utility field workers) or those who work in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (where smartphones are typically banned). A coordinated effort also means enlisting third-party individuals (customers, vendors, contractors, logistics firms). This involves a greater effort than conventional automatic tracing technologies such as smart badges for office workers.

Naturally, any company deploying automatic contact-tracing technology must be mindful of employee data privacy rights. While stakes are high in maintaining workplace safety – as well as in maintaining productivity and efficiency – employers nevertheless need to strike a balance between protecting both worker health and the data used to track their health and behavior. Employees need to know that their data is secure and is being used only in accordance with data privacy laws. Additionally, employers should be prepared for pushback from workers who may find these initiatives more intrusive than they’re comfortable with – both on and off the job.

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Michael Thiessen

Michael Thiessen

Vice Chair, Trust and Consulting Solutions, PwC US

Greg Rowley

Greg Rowley

Consumer & Industrial Products Sector Leader, PwC US

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