• The proven benefits of automation – reduced errors, lower costs, improved resource allocation – are all advantages that can be gained by applying it to mitigate hygiene risk.
  • Due to its unbiased nature, automated hand hygiene-monitoring systems are especially effective in places where a direct observation approach has failed to improve compliance.
  • Embracing technology to automate the process enables corporate leaders to reap the efficiency, productivity and cost advantages that automated solutions provide.

In September of 2020, JPMorgan made headlines by ordering its traders, bankers, brokers and analysts back into the office, touting the beneficial synergy of in-person workplace interactions. Several days later, the bank made headlines again for sending some traders home after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

As more of the population is vaccinated and returns to offices in pursuit of that synergy JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon hopes to regain, employers will want to avoid mandating employees back into workplaces before it is safe to return. Striking the balance between synergy and safety will require corporates to proactively mitigate hygiene risk, and they should do so by using the same approach that increases efficiency and reduces human error in any other business process: automation.

Hygiene risk and human error

Automation is at the forefront of the minds of many leaders who were undertaking a digital transformation heading into 2020 – a journey that for many was accelerated by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shift to remote work.

The proven benefits of automation – reduced errors, lower costs and improved resource allocation – are all advantages that can be gained by applying automation to mitigate hygiene risk. Recommendations encouraging handwashing, face masks, ventilation and social distancing are plentiful, but humans are imperfect in following these guidelines, resulting in surging infection rates and additional lockdowns. To ensure a resilient, sustainable return to work, corporate leaders will seek technological solutions, because automation is the antidote for human error.

Spending on workplace hygiene tech is expected to reach $400 million by 2025, and to ensure the best return on that fat investment, corporations will seek automated solutions that perform multiple functions. Some technology monitors various factors at once, such as hand hygiene and temperature checks, while other tools will aim to both monitor and educate.

For instance, Connectome.ai’s hand-washing system is a screen above the tap that is integrated with a turnstile. The system not only ensures safer entry, but also teaches proper hand hygiene – a practice that is very susceptible to human error and imperfection. When observed in public restrooms, only 5% of people washed their hands long enough to kill germs, 33% didn’t use soap, and 1 in 10 didn’t wash their hands at all. Another study observing adults aged 60+ preparing food in a domestic kitchen found that only 30% properly washed and dried their hands before preparing food; 62% did not rub hands, palms and between fingers when washing hands; and 47% failed to use soap every time they washed.

Given that handwashing has been shown to reduce cases of all respiratory diseases by 20%, and there is global consensus among the medical community that hand hygiene is the most effective first line of defence against COVID-19, it is clear that the educational component of automated solutions is not only necessary, but a sound investment for corporations aiming to mitigate hygiene risk and ensure the health and safety of their employees.

From medical to mainstream

The healthcare industry is already attuned to the benefits of automating hygiene risk, and automation continues to be a popular strategy in hospitals where cost-reduction and efficiency are central to their fiscal goals. Due to its unbiased nature, automated hand hygiene-monitoring systems are especially effective in facilities where a direct observation approach has failed to improve compliance. Other growing industry automation trends include touchless cleaning, with research indicating that UV light disinfection eliminates up to 97.7% of harmful pathogens in operating rooms, and smart HVAC system designs that not only ensure proper air circulation, but also automatically adjust themselves based on custom settings and schedules.

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of hygiene in safeguarding worker health across sectors, these formerly specialised solutions are going mainstream. Workplace hygiene solutions were already on the radar in heavy industries and the pandemic has resulted in creative adaptions of previously developed safety tech. German chemical company Henkel reconfigured sensors designed to prevent forklift crashes into wearable devices that ensure social distancing after a coronavirus outbreak that shut down the plant for two weeks.

Health, pandemics, epidemics

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The first human trial of a COVID-19 vaccine was administered this week.

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The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched in 2017 at the Forum's Annual Meeting – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and to enable access to these vaccines during outbreaks.

Coalitions like CEPI are made possible through public-private partnerships. The World Economic Forum is the trusted global platform for stakeholder engagement, bringing together a range of multistakeholders from business, government and civil society to improve the state of the world.

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Hygiene risk mitigation was recently in the global spotlight during the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo, with much discussion about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among athletes. Within the Olympic Village, the strategy was based around frequent testing, but some automated tech debuted, such as a digital pin that encouraged the exchange of information while maintaining social distancing.

Wearables are an enduring trend in sports. When the National Basketball Association (NBA) resumed play in 2020, players, coaches and reporters covering the games wore a wristband that sounded an alarm when wearers got too close to each other for two long. So far, hygiene risk strategies in sports are mostly focused on tracking and tracing, but it’s easy to envision how prevention could be integrated into the sporting experience – for instance, in arenas that already incorporate security screenings and ticketing turnstiles, the foundation is in place to integrate handwashing into the entrance experience.

Considering re-entry to offices, there is already widespread speculation on the workplace of the future – a vision where automated hygiene risk mitigation technology is seamlessly integrated into the design of the buildings. But, of course, most businesses aren’t yet breaking ground.

As companies plan for a return to their existing workspaces, they must embrace the automated solutions currently available, because corporations that fail to protect employees’ health remain exposed to significant risk and will, therefore, not be truly resilient. Not only is this the optimal approach to mitigating hygiene risk, but embracing technology to automate the process enables leaders to reap the efficiency, productivity and cost advantages that automated solutions provide.