In rush to adopt screening
Employers hoping to use technology to make things safer
Bob Grewal recently began testing a new health-screening setup for workers at a Subway restaurant he owns in Los Angeles near the University of Southern California.
When he stepped inside the employee food prep area, a fever-detection and facial recognition camera service, PopID, quickly identified him by name and gauged his temperature. Then a small tablet screen underneath the camera posted a message that cleared him to enter.
“Thank you Bob, you have a healthy Temp. of 98.06,” the screen said. “PopID aims to create a safe environment and stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Grewal is one of many business leaders racing to deploy new employee healthtracking technologies in an effort to reopen the economy and make it safer for tens of millions of Americans to return to their jobs in factories, offices and stores. Some employers are requiring workers to fill out virus-screening questionnaires or asking them to try out social-distancing wristbands that vibrate if they get too close to each other. Some even hope to soon issue digital “immunity” badges to employees who have developed coronavirus antibodies, marking them as safe to return to work.
But as intensified workplace surveillance becomes the new normal, it comes with a hitch: The technology may not do much to keep people safer.
Public health experts and bioethicists said it was important for employers to find ways to protect their workers during the pandemic.
But they cautioned there was little evidence to suggest that the new tools could accurately determine employees’ health status or contain virus outbreaks, even as they enabled companies to amass private health details on their workers.
Over the past month, companies have started marketing a slew of employeetracking tools to combat the virus.
PwC, the financial services firm, has developed a contact-tracing app to help employers “provide a lower-risk workplace for employees.” It will automatically log proximity between employees and can be used to help identify people who may have been exposed to the virus at work.
Salesforce, the giant software company, is offering a new tool, Work.com, to help employers “safely reopen.” Among other things, it will enable companies to create online employee health surveys and map the workplace locations visited by employees with coronavirus infections.
Clear, a security company that uses biometric technology to verify people’s identities at airports and elsewhere, plans this week to start marketing a healthscreening service that can be used to vet and clear employees to enter workplaces. The service will take employees’ temperatures with a thermal camera, as well as verify the results of their medical tests for the virus, sharing the results with employers as color-coded scores like green or red.
Yet many of the tools — including certain infrared thermometers and antibody tests that would be needed for employee “immunity” certificates — can be wildly inaccurate. Public health experts said the tools could create a false sense of security, leading workers to spread the virus inadvertently.
Fever-screening devices, for example, could miss many of the up to one-quarter or more people infected with the virus who do not exhibit symptoms. Or they could inadvertently expose employees who are running higher temperatures because they are under stress or have other health conditions, issues the workers may have preferred to keep private.
A worker at a Los Angeles Subway has a temperature taken by PopID, a fever-detection and facial recognition camera service.