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How new technologies could protect industrial workers from COVID-19

Governments and technology companies around the world are working quickly to unveil contact tracing abilities, which could prove to be an important tool in limiting the spread of COVID-19, especially as more countries begin to loosen restrictions and reopen their economies.

Yet while these types of tools are expected to be useful in protecting the general population, they may not be as helpful for many workers in the industrial sector, where certain protective equipment, technology and physical distancing isn’t always practical.

Some of the largest outbreaks in Canada have taken place in these types of workplaces, such as the hundreds of confirmed cases linked to meat-processing facilities as well as infections in several provinces traced back to a single Alberta oilsands work camp.

“There is an inherently riskier nature to working in those settings, compared to me working in an office building far apart, in my little cubicle, from other people,” said Dr. Jia Hu, a public health physician with Alberta Health Services. As part of his job with AHS, he helps co-ordinate contract tracing for the province.

“Anytime you have people work or live in crowded conditions, it’s easier to spread disease. We’re worried about those settings. I think a lot of these have caught public health authorities off-guard,” Hu said.

Calgary-based public health physician Dr. Jia Hu says the three best ways to reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases is widespread testing, contact tracing and physical distancing. (Erin Collins/CBC)

That’s why researchers are trying to find solutions specifically for the industrial sector.

Collecting data to track infections

One of these new projects is a device by Calgary-based Blackline Safety that became available this week.

The company’s software allows a company to track the movements of workers on a job site to monitor physical distancing requirements in real time — and, if an employee tests positive for the virus, to be able to do contact tracing and identify other workers who may have also come in contact with the virus.

It’s the type of technology that many other researchers are developing — including in Britain, where the National Health Service is working on an app that would record data on a person’s smartphone whenever they come in close contact with other people. If a person were to test positive for the virus, that data could be used to identify everyone else who may have been infected as well.

But in many industrial workplaces, smartphones aren’t permitted due to safety concerns. That’s why Blackline developed its technology using a wearable device, which according to the company is already used by 60,000 workers in Canada and around the world.

Blackline Safety’s contact tracing tool helps companies monitor social distancing and also trace person-to-person contacts if an employee tests positive for the virus. (Submitted by Blackline Safety)

Cody Slater, chief executive of Blackline, sees potential use for the technology in many sectors, such as utilities, food processing plants and chemical facilities, among others.

“This really gives companies a proactive tool to manage their workforce in the world of COVID,” he said.

Developing home test kits

Slater said industrial companies are usually quick to adapt to workplace challenges because physical safety is such an important part of their business.

“That’s the reason why we’re seeing such a quick interest in this kind of industrial contact tracing and social distancing, because those companies realize they have different challenges than the average [business] out there,” he said. 

Another possible protective tool for the industrial sector is based on technology already used in Suncor Energy’s refinery in Sarnia, Ont. The Calgary-based oil and gas company is working with researchers in hopes of developing COVID-19 home antibody test kits that are affordable and provide results quickly.

The kits would rely on techniques similar to those Suncor uses to treat wastewater at its Sarnia facility, using proteins to assist in breaking down contaminants.

The company is partnering with researchers at Western University through Mitacs, a not-for-profit innovation organization.

“It’s basically a direct spinoff of work that was already going on at Suncor, so they responded very quickly to our call for ideas to help with the COVID-19 crisis,” said John Hepburn, CEO and scientific director of Mitacs.

Identifying antibodies

Researchers are looking at whether the kits would be able to identify antibodies and whether that would give someone immunity from the virus or not.

A truck approaches Cargill meat-packing facility in southern Alberta, which is the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the province. (Charlotte Dumoulin/Radio-Canada)

“If it turns out that having antibodies does render immunity from the virus, it would be helpful to know that,” Hepburn said.

If the technology works, Hepburn said it could not only help companies like Suncor but other workplaces as well, from a retail store to a meat-processing plant. In other words, “companies where it is quite difficult to operate and maintain the two-metres distance and have the protective gear you need to operate safely.”

Hepburn said Suncor is providing its information in an open-source format so it’s available to other researchers around the world.

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