In early March of 2020, when businesses around the world were realizing the effects of the coronavirus outbreak would be much more widespread than initially anticipated, organizational leaders began to see the writing on the wall. To comply with social distancing measures, they would need to vastly change their business operations to avoid shutting down temporarily — or risk closing completely. Otherwise, industries would face a crisis amidst their workers, similar to what was later experienced by meat-packing plants across the United States in April and May, when the pandemic reached its peak.
In the report “Reopening workplaces: A collection of workforce-protection interventions,” research organization McKinsey & Company outlines where businesses have responded to the crisis across the “workforce journey”: pre-entry, travel to work, at work, common spaces and post-infection. With so many touchpoints for employees to be exposed to the virus and to others within the organization, it’s no wonder businesses across industries reacted quickly. They rushed to rearrange their workrooms to put more space between employees; encouraged those who were able to do their jobs remotely to stay home; required personal protective equipment, such as masks; implemented stringent cleaning and sanitization procedures; and limited contact between business groups to ensure safety for their employees, prevent the potential spread of the virus to customers, and keep the business running despite extreme circumstances.
Invisible Health Technologies (IHT) has sold thermal screening technology around the world since the 2003 SARS epidemic. Andrew Southern, IHT’s founder and CEO, said, “When COVID-19 shut down the U.S., I turned my attention to helping businesses use technology to help keep their employees and customers safe and confident moving forward.” IHT is an authorized reseller of Omnisense Systems’ Sentry MK4 Mass Fever Screening System, which assesses temperatures in a public setting. “The camera senses the heat coming off our skin and uses a proprietary algorithm to estimate our core body temperatures,” Southern says. “The system operator sets a temperature threshold, and the system will alert if someone walks by the camera who is estimated to be above the temperature.”
The thermal screening system is already in use in airports, hospitals and Fortune 500 companies across the U.S., and Southern says, “We see tremendous interest from factories, processing plants, distribution centers, attractions, education and transportation sectors.” They’re also seeing an uptick in adoption for other health technologies they sell, such as air filtration and UV-C light systems.
Concentra, a health care company, offers its clients antibody testing to check employees for immunity, “COVID-19 RNA testing to detect the virus in asymptomatic individuals,” as well as ongoing COVID-19 testing until the individual is deemed virus-free and able to return to work. Telemedicine, such as the kind offered by Philips or VSee, is being used to synchronously connect employees and healthcare providers and screen workers on their way into work. That technology isn’t especially new, but the pandemic has hastened its adoption.
Other companies are implementing more holistic measures, tracking employee wellness from the first sign of potential exposure to referral to a doctor through a health-related leave of absence. Axiom Medical, an occupational health services company for employers, recently released the new app Checkin2Work to help customers manage their employees during the pandemic. With it, employees confidentially self-report respiratory symptoms and potential exposure to the virus, and their employers, through Axiom’s health portal, track temperatures or antibody testing results. Although the app is customizable and companies can choose which types of screenings to require, optional questions include:
- Can you confirm that you are healthy?
- Do you have a fever?
- Have you traveled to a virus hotspot in the last 14 days?
- Have you experienced any new symptoms related to respiratory illness?
- Are you living with or exposed to someone with symptoms of COVID-19?
Although employees take their own temperature to report it to the app, many businesses have set up additional screenings at the company entrance point, such as the lobby. Those might include scanning eyes for infrared temperatures screening, COVID-19 testing via nasal swap, or antibody testing.
After completing the questionnaire, the employee is either cleared for work or flagged and told to stay home. At that point, Axiom takes over the case management process, confirming that the symptoms are new and not from an underlying condition (for example, a history of smoking or seasonal allergies). Then, an employee might be connected to one of the medical professionals Axiom has on staff; referred to a health professional via telemedicine; or directed to the emergency room.
Axiom was approached early this spring by businesses, desperate to stay in operation, that acknowledged their need for large-scale help in managing employee health, according to Dara Wheeler, Chief Marketing Officer at Axiom. Axiom has traditionally supported customers in industries most likely to experience workplace injuries, such as manufacturing, distribution, and oil and gas, and those customers reached out for help right away. However, the pandemic also led new industries, some that support critical infrastructure, to contact Axiom, such as food production companies; laboratories developing antibody and COVID-19 testing; residential gas service companies; and more recently, casinos and other businesses in the entertainment industry — newly concerned about occupational health and wellness — to ask for help. “As people started coming back into the workplace, companies wanted to be ahead of the curve.”
Longtime client, BJ Services, an oil field services company in Texas, was an early adopter of new pandemic-specific processes and has successfully remained open during the months of uncertainty. They have been “very innovative in this space,” says Wheeler, and have adopted solutions such as wearable tech, infrared scanners in lobbies, and COVID-19 testing before a shift, which might be a day in a traditional office setting or a week of living on-site in an oil field basin. “They’re even considering using infrared technology in remote oil and gas workplaces,” where they can bring in a van with a camera that screens employees while maintaining a safe distance.
In fact, being “proactive” has given BJ Services additional leeway in collaborating with their partners, Wheeler says. “Their customers are allowing them to bypass traditional processes.” Truckers, for example, can go to the front of the line, instead of waiting at health screening checkpoints. Although public relations isn’t any company’s primary concern during a pandemic, businesses that implement specific health precautions are “showing the public they’re taking this seriously. By taking care of their employees, the public perception of these companies is able to be maintained.” Companies that have implemented Axiom’s services have even impressed local health departments, who have “backed off” workplace concerns because of the methodical systems in place, Wheeler says.
In the long term, businesses have a lot to consider about how they operate in the future. “After the immediate threat of COVID subsides, I think the public understands now that we need better safeguards in place for future health events,” says Southern.
Wheeler agrees. Although Axiom had supported companies through earlier outbreaks, such as H1N1 and SARS, the COVID-19 pandemic was much bigger in scope. According to Wheeler, these organizations had generally considered the risk of a major outbreak before but didn’t have widespread policies and procedures in place for social distancing or affording extended leaves of absence. Businesses are “having to address personal illness in the workplace for the first time… [Going forward] organizations are going to have to take a hard stance about illness in the workplace.” Innovative technologies are one giant step toward keeping everyone safe.