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Face mask detection a newcomer to employee surveillance

Face mask detection has emerged as another form of employee surveillance technology, and its adoption may be helped indirectly by the potential of COVID-19 workplace regulations.

The next step in employee surveillance technology might be face mask detection. The technology can, in some cases, also track room occupancy and distance between employees. Face mask detection is part of a broader trend in using technology to monitor employee behavior.

Employers have IT tools that assess employee productivity based on metrics such as employee application usage, calendars and email use. Some technologies claim to analyze employee communications for potential mental health issues, such as signs of burnout, and others analyze a person's vital signs, such as heart and respiration rates.

Collectively, HR tools now have the potential to, if stitched together, monitor every aspect of an employee's behavior: their health, movements and productivity.

Mask detection technology, which is used to ensure employees follow company policy, arrived soon after the pandemic. An adopter is Cemin Holding Minero, a copper and gold mining firm based in Chile. It is using a system developed by Camiolog Inc., in San Mateo, Calif.

Taking advantage of existing workplace camera systems, Camio's software can analyze for COVID-19 protocol compliance such as wearing face masks and social distancing. The analysis is conducted in an on-premises virtual machine and Camio's cloud-based system.

Marcos Joo Sepulveda, a senior project manager at Cemin, said his firm wants to keep mining operations as safe as possible for employees during the pandemic. The mining company picked Camio because it could quickly deploy the technology over its existing infrastructure. The face mask detection system is used in all the employee areas, including the cafeteria, offices and other facilities.

Camio doesn't use facial recognition or otherwise identify employees. This fit the goal of Cemin, which is to create a culture of safety by monitoring face mask use and social distancing, Sepulveda said.

It's a tool to teach, not punish

Managers are provided a dashboard that points out cases where people were working without masks or too close together. They review the cases with employees and cite areas of concern, such as employees sharing a bag of olives, Sepulveda said.

It was not a punishing tool -- it's just an education tool for everybody's sake.
Marcos Joo SepulvedaSenior project manager, Cemin Holding Minero

"It was not a punishing tool -- it's just an education tool for everybody's sake," said Sepulveda, who spoke to SearchHRSoftware through an interpreter. Cemin has not had any outbreaks of COVID-19, he said.

Camio's system also has security uses, such as identifying "tailgating," when someone badges into a building followed closely by people who don't badge in, said Carter Maslan, Camio's founder and CEO. 

"It's because they're polite," Maslan said of people who hold a door open. But doing so can create a weakness in a company's security strategy. When the system detects tailgating, it identifies the badge that initially opened the door and sends an email to the badge holder about the incident.

Interest in employee surveillance tech has increased since the pandemic, according to one study by analyst firm Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. (ESG), a division of TechTarget. A survey of nearly 650 IT leaders from earlier this year found that about half were getting "additional pressure" from business executives to increase employee monitoring.

Most users look at monitoring tools "as a greater good" for employees and systems that make work easier and more efficient -- not as something to exert control, said Mark Bowker, an analyst at ESG. But he also acknowledged that some employees may not see it that way.

Federal government may act

A possible motivation for investing in face mask detection systems is COVID-19 enforcement by state and federal authorities.

Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) levied approximately $136,500 in fines against a Massachusetts tax preparation firm "for willfully failing to develop and implement measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus," the agency said. The tax firm prohibited employees and customers from wearing masks. It also didn't maintain six feet of distance between employees, the agency stated.

The risk of OSHA-related enforcement against employers may increase as employees return to the office. But legal experts also saw the Massachusetts case as an extreme example and potential outlier.

"Most employers, at this point, have fully complied with the recommended [COVID-19] measures that had been in place since last year," said Brian Weinthal, an employment attorney at Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C. in Chicago. Employers have had time to put in plexiglass, install signs reminding people to wear a mask, and make changes to offices that help with social distancing, he said. But more regulation may be on the way, he said.

In his first full day in office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order calling for COVID-19 emergency safety standards. The administration specifically asked agencies to determine whether it is necessary to wear face masks in the workplace. It had previously set a deadline of March 15 but has delayed the release of any safety protocols and has not announced a new date.

Weinthal said new workplace safety guidance from the Biden administration is still expected, including mask-wearing recommendations. "Despite the politicization of the mask debate, I think the prevailing view is always that mask wearing is a safe and effective method of preventing transmission," he said.

Mark Kruthers, an employment attorney at Fennemore Craig, P.C., warned that significant pandemic-related actions by the administration are possible. "The longer the pandemic drags on, the more likely it will be that we will see federal COVID-19-related mandates given the extreme differences in how individual states have chosen to address the situation," he said.

Radar as occupancy tool

If HR departments are concerned about enforcement, they will have plenty of face mask detection and other employee surveillance technology to choose from. Take the workplace safety tool from Xandar Kardian Inc., which uses radar to detect "micro-vibration" patterns from the body generated by respiration and blood flow, said Sam Yang, co-founder and managing director of Xandar in Toronto. The system can't identify individual employees.

Xandar Kardian's radar device XK-300
Xandar Kardian's radar device XK300 model, approximately the size of an Apple HomePod Mini, provides vital sign monitoring.

The radar system is deployed in entrances, public hallways and restrooms, and gathers information about how many people are passing through a building or have used a restroom, Yang said. If the system detects a bathroom is empty, for instance, it can trigger a UV-C lamp disinfection process, he said. He said the radar is more accurate at determining occupancy than motion detection systems, which rely on large body movements.

Xandar's vital sign monitoring capability is already used in healthcare, Yang said. But it may someday have a role in the office.

It is possible that office lighting, room temperatures and other environmental factors can be tied to vital sign data, Yang said. This data can be used together to optimize office lighting or temperature. It's an application that is under study, he said.

The radar system can also determine how long someone is in front of a computer or "dwell time." If the system detects a heart rate higher than usual, it could indicate stress and trigger a reminder for a rest break, Yang said.

But because the radar system can't identify people, data it collects would have to be tied to another system such as an office desk booking system. It would also need employee consent because of health privacy laws, he said.

Other firms such as Aware Inc., a biometrics products firm in Bedford, Mass., have adapted their face recognition security technology for face mask detection. One of the uses of Aware's system is access control, which can use facial recognition technology to open a door for an employee.

Mohamed Lazzouni, Aware's CTO, said the company updated its software to recognize face mask-wearing employees. Cameras deployed in common areas monitor for face mask compliance and send alerts to managers. It's up to the employer to set the alerts and determine what they want to do next, he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers human capital management and ERP technologies. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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