Coming to a business near you: Workforce contact tracing

Published on the 01/05/2020 | Written by Heather Wright

Social distancing in the workplace

Can private contact tracing solutions help ease lockdowns?…

With New Zealand dragging its heels over a national contact tracing app, and concerns in Australia – and wider – about privacy of nationwide Covid tracing apps, attention is turning to the potential role of workplace contact tracing and health and safety offerings as a means to help ease lockdowns.

While Australia has debuted its government organised CovidSafe app to help contact tracing – with three million already downloading the app – New Zealand continues to fumble in the dark. The New Zealand government has repeatedly hinted at plans for an offering, which it said last week would be available in a couple of weeks, but has been remarkably coy about exactly what form that offering will take – other than that the first iteration won’t include Bluetooth. (In fact, the first iteration – more than six weeks in discussion – is expected to just provide pre-registration with the Ministry of Health to ensure any contact tracers have up-to-date information should it be needed).

Site by site contact tracing avoids giving data wholesale to the government and makes gathering data feasible.

Simon Yock, founder of contact tracing and proof of presence solution provider Forsite, which has 10,000 users across New Zealand, Australia and the UK, says a national solution is a pipedream, with issues around the practicality of requiring a large portion of New Zealand’s population to have Bluetooth and geolocation active on devices at all times, the storing of the data, and privacy and security concerns.

Instead Yock (who yes, is a little biased) argues that a site to site approach is key to achieving a Covid-free future for New Zealand and Australia.

“Contact tracing site-by-site puts responsibility onto individual site managers and they can choose the solution that best suits their individual needs, rather than using a mandated solution that is reliant on one provider or app.

“Not only does this approach avoid giving data wholesale to the government, but it also makes gathering data feasible. It will help sites to return to operation sooner, and keep them safer, while helping to track the spread of any future outbreaks.

Companies offering health and safety log-in and tracing offerings for workplaces and sites are reporting increased demand, with new Covid-modified offerings being rushed to market.

Iain Dixon, chief executive and director of HazardCo, which provides health and safety as a service for the construction and trades and agriculture and horticulture sectors across New Zealand and Australia, says the company has seen an increase in enquiries in recent weeks.

The company has been offering its site check-in and induction, utilising QR codes, for 18 months and has now added Covid contact tracing questions to the offering, providing a timestamped dataset recording details about anyone on a site.

“We have adapted what we had and built out the report that way, rather than building something new, and it’s very, very specific to building sites, farms and manufacturing locations,” Dixon says.

The app conforms to guidelines set out by CHASNZ, the construction sector’s health and safety standards organisation, and Dixon says while it doesn’t include proximity information, it provides enough information to expedite contact tracing.

The QR code sign in, is proving a popular option.

One large construction company is requiring anyone attending sites to install the SignonSite app to ensure every person without exception signs in and out of sites. The app automatically records attendance and handles inductions and daily briefings in a contactless manner, with geofencing triggering actions.

New Zealand IT services provider Theta has also jumped on the opportunity with a QR code offering to provide a contactless alternative to handwritten guest registers ‘or systems that aren’t secure’.

The company says Eva Check-in can help businesses keep track of staff on-site, or visitors to retail stores, cafes or community facilities.

Many of the offerings however, have no proximity tracing, which raises its own issues, potentially creating long lists of anyone attending a site – without any clarity as to who might actually have been close to an infected person.

Kiwi company SiteM8, is forging its own path using electronic tags instead of apps.

Ihaka Rongonui, SiteM8 founder and director, says the device is designed to counteract the potential of entire construction sites being locked down by the discovery of a single Covid-infected worker.

The offering was originally designed to help Rongonui’s recruitment business with time sheeting before being made available to wider businesses.

“As a large employer already, we’re well versed in privacy law,” Rongonui says. That made him wary about using a smartphone based app.

“I’m aware from court proceedings in other where employers have forced staff to utilise personal mobile phones as tracking devices for commercial reasons that it’s a breach of privacy law,” he says. Construction workers largely use their own phones.

The SiteM8 GPS tags are worn as part of the daily PPE for workers and are geofenced, stopping any tracking outside of sites and powering down outside of work hours.

Unlike many of the app options, SiteM8 records proximity data, though Rongonui says the focus isn’t on providing specific proximity data, but instead ‘statistical confidence’ of the likelihood of someone coming into contact with an infected person, using a low, medium and high grading system.

Data can be pulled from the system ‘in seconds’ if needed by the Ministry of Health contact tracers.

“We have a Covid-19 contact tracing functionality which is effectively a search engine where you enter a person’s name and within seconds it will bring up a list of names of other workers who have been in and around them and were statistically likely to have come in contact with that person over x amount of time.”

About a dozen companies employing more than 1000 workers, predominantly in the construction sector, have already signed up for the offering. Rongonui says the majority of its clients are in the 50-300 staff range.

Global behemoth PwC, meanwhile, is rolling out its own solution. The Automatic Contact Tracing offering, which PwC says will be shared with clients as well as being used internally, uses geofenced indoor geolocation to monitor time and proximity of employee interactions within the workplace.

The technology, which uses ambient signals to provide indoor geolocation, was initially developed to track assets within buildings. The human tracking offering is currently being beta tested and is expected to be available in early May. The app, when downloaded onto a phone, turns the phone into a beacon, enabling it to detect other devices.

PwC says at that point all data is anonymised. However, if an employee contracts Covid – or another infectious disease ­for that matter – the data can be linked to a specific employee to identify any other phones they have come into contact with and whether there is a high, medium or low risk based on the strength of the signal.

Pen and paper advocates
Not everyone is advocating technology, however.

Paul Jarvie of the Employers and Manufactures Assoiciation, is involved in the cross-government committee, where apps have, he says, been discuseed several times.

“To our knowledge the apps that are out there probably don’t capture the information the MoH wants.”

Jarvie says there’s also a question mark over how quickly the data can be delivered to the Ministry of Health if required.

“They don’t want to have to go back into databases and find stuff and pull it out. Having a very simple old fashioned paper system, is all in one place, there and current.”

Call for clarity for retailers
For Kiwi retailers, however, there’s a bigger problem: A lack of clarity around what exactly will even be required in Level 2 – when retailers are hoping they might be able to open bricks and mortar stores again.

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Hartford is calling for urgent clarification of what will be required.

“If there’s a requirement for businesses to have some sort of IT arrangements, or app in place, they need to know about it sooner rather than later.”

A brief foray into level 2 in March saw no mandatory requirement for retailers to record customer details, though many suggested it was good practice and hospitality were required to do so.

Hartford says early advice from government is now crucial to provide businesses with time to prepare. The sector has had no real guidance yet as to what level 2 means for retailers, though many are assuming stores will be able to open, with limited numbers of shoppers allowed in and high hygiene required.

“Everyone in business wants to do the right thing, but at the moment there is a bit of a vacuum around what that right thing is.

“Without detailed requirements being published by the government, businesses could invest time and money  in putting something in place that won’t actually meet the requirement.”

He is suggesting businesses start scoping out options – ranging from pen and paper to QR codes and text messaging apps which allow customers to book slots and check in instore.

“Over the last five or six weeks we’ve seen a rapidly evolving set of rules coming out from government, and where things have not been made clear sometimes, businesses have tried to do the right thing and got it wrong, so it’s a good idea to be cautious [about investing yet].”

While pen and paper might be a starting point, Hartford questions how retailers would then manage the paperwork and how quickly any data collected that way could be accessed if needed by the Ministry of Health.

Whatever the solution, most agree: Contact tracing in some form or another, will be a part of our future for a long time to come.

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