Workplace exposures

Contact tracing

‘An important thing for employers to do’

contact tracing
Photo: elenabs/iStockphoto

During a recent construction project, workers wore armbands connected to an electronic node network situated across the jobsite.

Project supervisors from the engineering and construction firm Jacobs implemented the technology as a form of contact tracing – a disease control measure with long-standing roots in public health practice that has emerged as a new concept for many employers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contact tracing is used to identify, support and monitor individuals potentially exposed to an infected person. If a worker on the project had tested positive for COVID-19 or been exposed to someone who had, in this instance, a report from the device network would have alerted the project manager about the recent job path of the affected worker and determined which colleagues were potentially exposed.

“They like it and feel a bit of relief associated with the wearable technology,” Jane Beaudry, a senior environmental, health and safety manager at Jacobs, said of the workers on the project. “They are happy that that exists. Initially, there were some concerns about ‘Big Brother,’ right, but we told them, ‘Listen, the nodes are only within work zones. Nobody tracks you after work.’ So, we kind of allayed that fear.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends contact tracing for anyone who has come within 6 feet of an individual with COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more within 48 hours of diagnosis. State, tribal, local and territorial health departments bear the authority and responsibility for implementing the measure.

Associate Editor Kevin Druley discusses this article in the November 2020 episode of Safety+Health's “On the Safe Side” podcast.

The employer’s role

In June, the National Safety Council released an issue paper and policy position on contact tracing as part of its SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns initiative. The council urges employers to participate in workplace contact tracing in conjunction with public health officials to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

NSC advises employers to:

  • Encourage employees to participate in a technology or other system designed to determine employee contacts during the infection period.
  • Seek employee buy-in for contact tracing, whether it’s conducted via a mobile app or other means.
  • Allow employees who were exposed to the infected individual (identified through contact tracing) to remove themselves from the workplace and self-quarantine according to CDC recommendations.

“With a virus that is as contagious as this and could greatly impact businesses and worker safety and health, being able to determine if somebody was in the workplace who had been infected and then trace who they may have come into contact with is just an important thing for employers to do – to know that they need to do it and then to be able to do it,” said Jane Terry, vice president of government affairs at NSC, who helped develop the policy position.

Proper contact tracing, she added, while vital for all employers, can be especially key to maintaining the health and fluidity of smaller organizations – and, in many cases, the overall health of the general public. “If you’ve got a single or couple of employers in rural areas, you’re really impacting the entire community,” Terry said. “And to be able to ensure that employers have resources to keep their people safe underscores the ability for the community to keep itself safe and healthy.”

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