IoT helps make return-to-work safer

Employers talk about how IoT is enabling contact tracing, monitoring air quality, and enforcing rules about social distancing as workers go back to the office post-quarantine. With more employees preparing to return to company offices at least part of the time, businesses have turned their attention to ensuring the safety of workers—given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. In some cases, Internet of Things (IoT) and networking technologies are playing a key role in these efforts.

In fact, organizations might make decisions on when and how to bring workers back based on how well they can monitor them and their behavior using these tools.

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Here’s a look at how three organizations are leveraging IoT technologies to ensure workplace safety.

Monitoring air quality

Innovatus Capital Partners, an independent adviser and portfolio-management firm, wants to ensure that as business leaders and employees return to the office their expectations for clean, safe environments are met.

To that end, the firm has deployed a smart air-quality monitoring system at its offices in Illinois and Tennessee. The system combines technologies from Veea, an edge-computing company, and Wynd Technologies, a provider of portable air purifiers.

“Workers re-entering the commercial office space after Covid-19 need assurance that they are in the cleanest environment possible,” says Bradley Seiden, managing director at Innovatus. “That means you have to be able to measure the environment—specifically the air quality in the environment.”

The company deployed air-quality monitoring sensors throughout common areas where they collect air metrics such as mold and CO2 levels, temperature, humidity, etc. The sensors can also identify the presence of airborne particles with signatures that might indicate the presence of coronavirus and various flu strains.

The data is collected via Wi-Fi by the Veea Edge Platform, where Wynd’s application software gathers the data from the sensors, processes it, and provides it to data visualization software. This software builds a charts and graphs that are displayed on screens throughout the facility, which enable visitors and tenants to view real-time air quality scores.

In addition to the localized processing and presentation, the data can be sent to Wynd’s cloud for further analysis using the Veea Edge Platform’s integrated 4G LTE capability.

“We first focused on air quality, but we also wanted our platform to be broadly extensible to meet the evolving needs of our office tenants, building vendors, and users,” he says. “And we also wanted to be able to cost-effectively integrate it into our properties and allow for expansion easily into our tenant spaces without disrupting our existing building-management systems.”

Veea’s platform includes Smart Edge Nodes, which are router-sized networking devices that include Linux-based server processing combined with Wi-Fi mesh technology and wireless IoT device connectivity, including ZigBee, Bluetooth, and LoRaWAN. The nodes gather data from the Wynd sensors via Wi-Fi.

These hubs can be meshed together to create a virtual pool of connectivity and processing at the edge of the network, “where our tenants and their devices connect,” Seiden says. “This edge platform provides distributed processing along with distributed connectivity.”

The flexibility of the edge platform was a key factor in its selection, Seiden says. The hubs are installed in locations where property managers would typically place Wi-Fi access points or routers, and they connect to each other, he says. The hubs use a mix of Wi-Fi and Ethernet with a proprietary mesh technology from Veea that works with both wired and wireless connections. The Veea mesh uses integrated wireless WAN/4G LTE, allowing the entire system to be independent of the wired in-building data infrastructure, removing an integration step.

The capabilities of the sensors that gather the data—Wynd Halo Smart Air Quality Monitors—are software-defined, so even after the monitors have been deployed, updates can have them look for new air-quality indicators. For example, they could be coded to detect smoke from burning furniture, which has a different signature than smoke from cooking.

Innovatus says it plans additional deployments of the system in other properties in other states.

Tracing contacts and controlling occupancy

After the pandemic forced Bay State College to close its doors in early spring of 2020, senior officials began thinking about how to safely resume classes on the college’s campuses in Boston and Taunton, Massachusetts.

They wanted a minimally invasive, easily deployed, and financially justifiable technology solution that they could implement in less than five months. Having small class sizes and no large lecture halls gave the college a distinct advantage in achieving social distancing, but even so, the college was at risk that a single case of coronavirus might infect a significant share of the population.

Leadership at the college determined that rather than relying on a single product, a layered technology approach would be needed, says Bay State CIO Jeffrey Myers. An important requirement would be contact tracing, which is considered by health departments to be among the most important efforts to help slow the spread of the virus. The IT team at Ambow Education USA, which operates the college, deployed a digitized contact tracing system using products from Cisco Meraki and HID Global.

Everyone on campus—faculty, staff, students, and visitors—was issued a lanyard and ID badge-holder equipped with HID’s BEEK Bluetooth low-energy beacons that had to be worn visibly at all times.

Behind the scenes, the college deployed the Cisco Meraki Wi-Fi network throughout its campuses. Each wireless access point (AP) contains a Bluetooth antenna that listens for intermittent pings emitted from the badge holders, triangulates data from multiple APs to determine relative location of the beacons, and then stores that data in a SQL database. For security reasons Myers declined to share the location of the database, but says the Meraki system has application programming interfaces (APIs) available to pull the necessary data directly from APs.

The IT team then developed Microsoft Power BI queries that allow it to determine who was in the same place at the same time for a duration of 10 minutes or longer with a possibly infected individual, Myers says. As part of an effort to keep data secure, all of it is destroyed after 14 days, and during the 14-day period it’s encrypted and can only be accessed by senior IT department staff and only for contact-tracing purposes, Myers says. The beacons on the badges transmit MAC addresses that contain no personal information. “There’s no way for anyone to associate the MAC address alone with that individual,” he says.

The system has allowed the college to quickly and easily perform contact tracing by removing the manual and time-consuming effort of identifying who has been in contact with whom on campus. “If somebody who’s infected comes on campus, we can determine who that person was around and can minimize the impact and pretty much stop any spread through the community,” Myers says.

The overall solution keeps a real-time count of the number of individuals on campus, helping the college comply with state and local restrictions. “We can tell occupancy at any particular time,” Myers says. “I can go into the system right now and tell you exactly the number of people that are on both campuses.” The system gives the college “digital evidence” that’s being compliant with the current limits, he says.

The IT team at Ambow Education USA worked during the summer of 2020 to deploy the systems. “The project required an enormous amount of time, testing, expertise, and teamwork to solve the unique challenges associated with the moving target of a developing pandemic,” Myers says.

Ensuring proper social distancing

To help ensure employee safety and stop the spread of COVID-19, Nutrien Ltd. early in 2021 expanded its use of proximity-monitoring and contact-tracing technology from Triax Technologies.

A provider of farming products and services that help growers sustainably increase food production, the company was deemed an essential service in its core markets at the start of the pandemic.

To help mitigate the spread of the virus, Nutrien partnered with Triax to help its workers maintain a minimum of distance of six feet from each other and automatically capture data about their interactions with coworkers.

More than 8,000 Nutrien employees worldwide are using the technology, called Proximity Trace, and an additional 6,500 were scheduled to be part of the expansion this year. Originally deployed in July 2020 at Nutrien’s nitrogen and phosphate sites in the US, the company is rolling out the technology at its potash mines in Canada, at corporate offices in Illinois, and at two additional sites in Canada.

Light-weight Proximity Trace tags are attached to workers’ clothing or hard hats and produce a real-time, audible and visual (flashing red light) alert to anyone who comes within six feet, to support proximity monitoring. The tags also automatically log data, so the company can quickly perform contact tracing if a positive case arises. Data is captured by gateways that are strategically placed around the site.

The tags have a rechargeable battery with multiple months of battery life between charges. They communicate with other tags and a gateway using 900 MHz wireless, and the gateways push the captured data to a Triax cloud portal hosted via LTE.

“Access to the portal is integrated into our Microsoft Active Directory environment, and there is no connectivity to our network during the process,” says Gary Peterson, director of IT for Nitrogen & Phosphate. “The information is used for reporting purposes, in the event of necessary contact tracing. The tags are not used for location tracking. If there is a contact-tracing requirement, site leaders can quickly run a report that tells them who qualifies as a close contact.”

Because the technology doesn’t use GPS or Bluetooth, doesn't rely on a customer’s Wi-Fi network or the Internet, or track employee location, it avoids privacy concerns. And since it pinpoints individuals who might have been exposed to the virus, the system also helps Nutrien minimize the risk of operational shutdowns and the  associated costs.

Since the implementation of the Triax technology, physical distancing alerts have reduced the number of close contacts, positive cases, and quarantines. In addition, the automated data system has improved the efficiency and accuracy of contact tracing.

The technology, “has been successful in eliminating the inefficiencies of a manual contact-tracing process and providing a safe and healthy work environment for employees and contractors,” Peterson says.

Nutrien selected the Proximity Trace technology for several reasons, Peterson says. One is that the proximity monitoring and contact tracing capabilities support Nutrien’s safety-first culture by helping to maintain physical distancing and provide contact-tracing reporting if necessary.

The system also met Nutrien’s technology, cyber security, and safety requirements for deployment. Implementing the technology was efficient, with easy set-up and configuration, Peterson says. In addition, the system is scalable, which supports the company’s plans to expand its use across more sites where Nutrien hopes to safely return more employees who have been working remotely.