By Ray Almgren, CEO, Swift Sensors

Since the start of the COVID pandemic, the protein processing industry has been hit hard and often by outbreaks of the virus among workers. So far, more than 50,000 U.S.-based meat and poultry production employees have been infected and more than 200 lives have been lost. To address the problem, public health officials and meat producers are helping workers to get vaccinated, and researchers are trying to find ways to cut COVID risk inside processing plants—where cold air and production-line proximity among workers creates conditions that can allow the virus to spread easily.

While researchers, public health officials, workplace safety agencies, and industry members search for long-term solutions, remote monitoring networks can help improve workplace safety now. These networks of small wireless sensors can deliver real-time information to managers to support distancing and improved ventilation, help enforce PPE requirements, reduce crowding and more with a minimal investment of time and funds.

The safety support that a wireless monitoring network can provide lines up with several of the recommendations in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s most recent guidance for COVID safety in the workplace:

  • Spacing employees at least 6 feet apart or using physical barriers where distancing isn’t possible.
  • Improving ventilation to reduce the amount of airborne viral particles inside workplaces.
  • Requiring workers to wear masks and other personal protective equipment if needed.

Implementing these safety precautions is one thing. Making sure they’re followed is another. It’s easy for workers and supervisors to fall back into pre-pandemic work habits, especially when production lines are moving quickly and everyone’s under pressure.

Tools for real-time COVID safety practice monitoring

Following through with processing plant safety practices is easier with cost-effective tools that are easy to install and offer immediate data managers can act on. Remote sensor networks fit this bill. Collections of small (matchbox-sized) sensors with batteries that can last for years can be attached to walls in key parts of a meat or poultry processing plant in a few minutes with screws or zip ties. They then connect themselves wirelessly and securely to an on-site gateway, a small device that records their data and sends it securely to the cloud for storage.

Once the data is in the cloud, plant managers can sign in on any device to see what’s happening all around the plant in the moment — and to review past data to see trends, issues, and projections. Managers can also get real-time alerts when sensors detect something that’s outside the acceptable range, so they can handle it right away.

Support for physical distancing and masking

To reduce crowding in areas like employee locker rooms, entrances and corridors, plants can install remote door and activity sensors that log how many times people enter and exit those spaces and how much activity (or inactivity) is happening within them. If there’s too much traffic in these areas, supervisors will get an alert so they can act. By pairing wireless video coverage with door sensors where it’s appropriate, managers and security staffers can evaluate alerts without leaving their station unless it’s absolutely necessary. That can save time and help them maintain a safe distance from other team members. Remote video monitoring can also give supervisors the ability to make sure employees are wearing masks and following distancing rules, even when those supervisors are out of the room or off-site.

Support for ventilation, security and temperature control

While the production line’s temperature and ventilation systems are carefully controlled for safety, it may be possible to improve fresh air flow through other parts of the facility, like offices and locker areas, simply by opening windows or doors. Unfortunately, doing this can also make the plant less secure, especially if security staff is limited.

One solution is to add door and window sensors that can alert security if there’s unexpected or unauthorized activity at one of the building exits. These sensors can also improve factory security overall by protecting cabinets that contain sensitive items and offices that hold expensive equipment.

Support for frequent cleanings

Frequent washdowns and equipment sterilizations are a must in protein processing plants, to comply with food safety rules and to protect workers from the spread of disease. That means all the equipment on-site should be able to withstand water. While many wireless sensors and gateways are designed for dry environments, there are water-resistant versions available for food production and other wet settings, so plant staffers can clean and disinfect areas without damaging their sensor network.

It may take months or longer to fully get the pandemic under control, even with people working to distribute vaccines and improve Covid safety in meat processing plants. Setting up a wireless sensor network now can support current best practices to slow the spread of the virus, and it can offer long-term security benefits as well, so protein plants can keep their employees as healthy and safe as possible.

Ray Almgren is the CEO at Swift Sensors, a developer of cloud-based wireless sensor systems for industrial applications. Prior to his role at Swift Sensors Ray was the Vice President of Marketing at National Instruments. Ray received his BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Ray is the founder and current board member of FIRST in Texas, a member of the National FIRST Executive Advisory Board, and has served on several engineering advisory boards including The University of Texas at Austin, Southern Methodist University, and Tufts University.

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