26 Mar 2021

Leveraging technology to keep workers safe and factories running

There are several lessons that the Covid 19 pandemic has brought. One of the foremost, one year on from when the country first went into lockdown, is that defeating the pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint. The second is that workers can, and must, be kept safe, from possible infection, especially as new variants of the virus proliferate, for the duration that the pandemic still rages.

Bearing in mind that it will likely be several months before the general population is vaccinated, it is not feasible for manufacturing plants to be closed until the virus is completely eradicated, especially since our economy relies on them to produce items that keep people safe and treat people who are ill.

Critical health products, like hand sanitisers, masks and medical equipment, along with other essential everyday items that many take for granted, all begin in a manufacturing facility. And each are in high demand and will likely continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, environmental health and safety measures, along with basic hygiene and cutting-edge technology, can ensure that facilities are able to continue running while keeping workers protected.

To this end, it almost goes without saying, manufacturing plants need to implement the basics of protecting workers on the factory floor. These are familiar – offering well ventilated spaces where possible, requiring workers to wear masks, providing workers with the means to regularly sanitize their hands, and encouraging them to avoid touching their face.

Unfortunately, another essential measure – social distancing – presents a greater challenge to implement and manage in a factory setting, where workers have been historically in a close proximity to one another for extended periods.

However, manufacturers can implement innovative technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearables to rise to that challenge. Together, these can alert workers when they are too close to one another, without distracting them from their work. Much like the mobile app deployed by the government, Covid Alert SA, deploying wearables enables workers in factories to receive real time alerts when anyone has recently tested positive for the Covid-19 virus within their manufacturing plant.

Furthermore, deploying Internet of Things (IoT) sensors in a factory can further enable a manufacturing facility’s management to perform plant wide contact tracing.

Should one of their personnel be affected, every individual possibly exposed can be notified and treated, to prevent a further spread, and possibly avoiding a full shutdown of the plant. Furthermore, IoT sensors can help identify all pieces of equipment that an infected worker would have touched. This not only facilitates a more efficient cleaning, it lessens the likelihood that other workers will come in contact with an infected surface.

In short, technology offers manufacturing plants that are implementing safety measures a potent way to stop further infection in its tracks, by quick containment.

Another technology that can assist in implementing environmental health and safety measures is deep learning, where machine learning software can analyse video footage and generate relevant reports.

For example, it can determine whether workers are adhering to social distancing protocols and wearing masks at all times; foot traffic throughout a factory, and whether shift times need to be adjusted. More importantly, it could provide reporting on when and where EHS measures might be flouted so plant managers can take corrective action.

Combining these emerging technologies with existing healthy and safety practices in this way offers manufacturing facilities a way to keep their workers safe, while still producing the outputs that the factory, and the country, requires.

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