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Meet the pandemic’s other frontline workers

July 28, 2020

What is connected-worker technology and how will it alleviate fears in industrial workforces?

Manufacturing workers have been at the forefront of the pandemic; within their factory

Parsable's Jaime Urquidi

walls, raw material goes in and finished goods emerge. The groceries on the shelves, the bath tissue on the roll, the hand sanitizers in our back pocket all got there because of people who go to work in manufacturing plants every day.

These workers are also essential to produce what continues to be critically needed by our healthcare system: ventilators, masks and other PPE.

More than four months into the pandemic, factories that previously closed due to COVID-19 are carefully beginning to reopen; those that didn't close have had to quickly reconfigure how work is performed on the floor. We also are seeing signs of a manufacturing uptick; the ISM index climbed to 52.6% in June, up 9.5% points from the May reading of 43.1%.

With all this happening, companies undoubtedly must find new ways to keep employees safe. Mitigating COVID-19 risk could also help plants avoid a series of future closures, depending on how long the virus continues to be a threat or how many waves of it we’ll see in the coming years.

A recent survey found that the biggest on-the-job fear (for 68% of frontline, essential workers not in healthcare or government), was catching COVID-19. 42% are seeing impact at home by social-distancing from their own families. An organization that has implemented all the advanced automation in the world might not, in fact, have much of an edge if they do not appropriately support their human workforce.

Technology that focuses on powering our human frontlines will become increasingly important as the world realizes the importance of industrial workers and digitally connecting them to the people, information, systems and machines to improve their safety, productivity and output quality. This connected-worker technology includes scalable platforms that help ensure the increased safety and security that so many workers currently lack. By implementing solutions that support workers, industrial organizations can also hope to retain business continuity through uncertain times.

As LNS Research analyst Peter Bussey recently stated, "The EHS business function is in a prime position to lead this type of innovation, and the current crisis might surface important connected-worker use cases related to monitoring worker location, interactions, health status and so forth in the COVID-19 'new normal.'"

Connected-worker technology helps to alleviate many of the challenges that COVID-19 presents in the industrial workplace, including social distancing. A factory runs on person-to-person collaboration—people often work side by side, line by line, to keep products and parts moving along each manufacturing step. Inspectors, engineers and other specialists rotate among teams.

Historically in these setups, the concept of physical distancing would be nearly impossible, especially with basic factory functions like the shift handover. (When shift A is ready to leave and shift B is coming in, those shifts need to get together , usually in a room, to share where certain processes stand and what needs to be done.) With COVID-19 still very much a threat, this basic function becomes much harder.

Connected-worker technology makes new social-distancing regulations and policies, like contactless shift handovers, possible. At its most foundational level, connected-worker technology digitizes standard operating procedures, which in turn means the progress of work also is digitally captured, in real time, and readily available to anyone who needs to know. Employees don’t need to physically interact with each other to know what they need to tackle when they come into the plant for their shift; it’s all available to them through the connected-worker platform, accessible via a mobile device.

Connected-worker tools also provide step-by-step guidance for workers on how to complete certain processes, which is critical when workers have to quickly shift production to meet new needs, like moving from clothing production to mask production, or from beauty products to hand sanitizer.

Technology is not the only answer for keeping frontline workers safe, but it is a transformational enabler for changing the way we interact. Technology’s role is increasingly important as we watch this pandemic play out on the world stage.

No one knows what the future will hold, but one thing is certain: the output from frontline industrial workers will continue to be essential for our livelihoods. We owe it to them to provide the modern digital tools they require to work safely and efficiently.

Jaime Urquidi is regional vice president and CPG lead for Parsable