RFID makes wireless waves in health and safety management

RFID makes wireless waves in health and safety management
Over the years, advances in technology have become a game-changer when it comes to employing successful business strategies and improving business processes. Advances in wireless technology are now making waves in the area of health and safety, and RFID is paving the way for the digitization of health and safety management. Are you ready to ride the wireless wave?
The use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology has steadily increased in recent years, helping to improve efficiencies in various business processes— and health and safety is no exception. RFID technology is helping to standardize and simplify safety recordkeeping and inspection processes — and potentially contribute significantly to the reduction of workplace injuries.

RFID is a wireless technology that uses radio waves to communicate data from electronic identification tags placed on objects to a handheld reader device. The technology is similar in some respects to that used in bar code readers, but RFID possesses a number of distinct advantages over bar code technology when it comes to health and safety applications.

As Somen Mondal — the president and CEO of FieldID, a safety compliance solutions firm based in Toronto — points out, it’s the increased field capabilities that sets RFID apart from bar codes and makes it ideal for monitoring and conducting safety inspections. “It’s like a barcode on steroids,” he says. “It’s the next step. It’s more rugged, it’s more durable and more reliable out in the field.”

Neil Alan, a global technical architect with Honeywell Life Safety, which produces a line of RFID-equipped Enabled Safety Products, echoes Mondal’s statements, pointing to RFID’s ability to read multiple tags simultaneously and communicate data across greater physical barriers.

“The difference between barcode and RFID technology is that you can read (RFID tags) in parallel,” notes Alan. “Instead of just reading them one at a time, you have the ability to read a thousand RFID tags in the same second. They’re also not nearly as susceptible to dirty environments. These elements are key to safety and environmental issues.”

Lower-priced RFID tags
Variations of RFID technology have been around since WWII, when Soviet inventor Léon Theremin created “The Thing,” a simplistic covert listening device the Soviets used to spy on the United States. The first full-fledged RFID device was developed in 1973, by Mario Cardullo, as an identification technology with potential applications in banking, security, transportation and medicine.

It’s only in the last five years, however, that manufacturers have begun to realize the technology’s potential in the field of health and safety — and the decreasing cost of the technology is a big driver for that, says Mondal.
“Now it’s realistic to put a chip or a tag in a harness, because it costs less than a dollar to put it in there. The cost of these tags have consistently lowered and lowered.”

Likewise, in tracing the rise of RFID technology in health and safety applications, Alan points to developments in the U.S. that helped bring about a level of cost-efficiency that made the use of widespread RFID tagging possible.

“The big change came about six years ago,” he notes, “when Wal-Mart and the American Department of Defence pushed for a required pallet-level tagging of products going into distribution centres. There was a big influx of manufacturers that wanted to get into that game, so there was a big change in pricing about six years ago. There’s an incredible push right now, so tags have come down from many dollars each to pennies each. It’s really the maturity of the technology.”
But while these early initiatives by large and influential organizations created an immediate demand for affordable RFID tags, Alan feels it still may be some time before we see the true potential and reach of RFID technology in the realm or regulating and standardizing health and safety practices.

“Price is really going to drive the utilization of ultra high-frequency tags. There are a number of companies that are trying to go for a sub-penny RFID chip. If we were to get to such a range, the utilization would really go through the roof. You would be looking at unit-level tagging of practically everything. Unit-level tagging is the major difference between your typical bar code and an RFID-enabled piece of equipment or product. The usage, as we get to that sub-penny price point, could be up thousands of a per cent. When we get there, we’ll be looking at ubiquitous technology.”

How and why of RFID
RFID works because, although the technology is complex, the application of it is simple. To use it, items are equipped with RFID tags, which are small data chips powered by the interrogating signal of the reader, a digital handheld device that retrieves data from the tags with the help of RFID software. While this might sound overly technical, all that’s required of the user is that they stand within a reasonable proximity of the tagged item so that they can retrieve the data from the tag.

Consider a safety manager conducting safety inspection on a set of 30 fall harnesses. All of the harnesses look nearly identical, which means that inspecting and ensuring the safety of each of the harnesses requires that each of them be identified by their serial number before being tested and cleared for use. Far from merely being a time-consuming or tedious task, this kind of inspection process has the potential to be especially dangerous, as it allows for the possibility of human error— or even worse, the possibility that the safety manager will lose focus and fail to test some of the harnesses.

This is the type of inspection process where RFID makes all the difference. Because it can obtain multiple readings from tags simultaneously, and because it can register them from meters away, RFID simplifies the process of identifying and inspecting the harnesses considerably. For Mondal, it’s a perfect example of how RFID technology can change health and safety practices for the better.

“RFID really assists in the inspection and audit process,” he says. “Instead of having to visually identify the harness— something that needs to be inspected in some cases on a daily basis, and can be very tedious— you can now walk around with a handheld reader, scan the chip, and do the inspection; so you’ve done the whole process in 20 seconds when it used to take ten minutes.”

Mike Booke— the vice president of global information technology with Capital Safety Group, which produces the RFID-equipped iSafe line of fall protection products— similarly emphasizes the time saving and productivity-generating nature of the technology. Booke says RFID users achieve between 33 to 50 per cent in time saving over a paper-based system.

More than just making the process more efficient, though, Mondal points out that RFID is also an invaluable asset when it comes to correctly identifying safety equipment and eliminating the margin of error.

“The first step in safety compliance is identification,” he insists. “Whether you’re identifying a person, or an asset — like a hoist or a harness or a ladder, or a building or a place — an audit or inspection always starts with identification. That’s where RFID is really relevant. It provides you with an exact way to identify an asset.”

Digitization of health and safety

While RFID’s ability to identify and document assets and their inspection processes is a critical development in the advancement of health and safety practices, Mondal is quick to note that RFID is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to the increasing digitization of health and safety inspections and recordkeeping.

“RFID alone is not the solution to this,” he says, referring to the simplification and standardization of inspection processes. “It’s one step in the digitization of all your safety records. By scanning a piece of equipment, you now have information in the palm of your hand— whether it’s been inspected, whether it’s safe to use, how you inspect that piece of equipment. Another piece of the puzzle is maintaining those records and scheduling (inspections).”

Another element of what sets RFID technology apart is its compatibility with web-based software, which allows users to store and access inspections data in a centralized and easily accessible digital format. Such system has distinct advantages over traditional recordkeeping.

“So the way it used to be— and in some cases still is— is you have a piece of equipment, you do an inspection, you write it down on the clipboard, and then you have to store it away in a filing cabinet,” says Mondal. “The problem with that is there’s no way for you to get that data out in the field, so how do you know when a harness was inspected? You have no idea, because those records aren’t available— they’re in filing cabinets. That’s where a digital system from start to finish helps.”

In this way, Mondal sees RFID as an extension of an already growing movement towards the digitization of health and safety practices. It’s a trend he expects to continue, and one his company will help facilitate as more and more companies realize the value of centralizing and digitizing their inspection processes.

RFID's role in OHS inspections
RFID’s ability to establish company-wide inspection standards is another benefit the technology brings to organizational health and safety inspection processes. When coupled with web-based software that centralizes data in one location, this capability can significantly improve the process of upholding and providing documentation for government inspection requirements.

For Booke, a standardized inspection process provides huge value when dealing with governmental inquiries and establishing company-wide internal protocols.

“One of the big advantages— especially for a large enterprise where you may have multiple sites and multiple inspectors— is that all the inspection questions are standardized,” says Booke. “You have a repeatable process for not only making sure the inspections are done on time, but also how the inspections are done. That not only improves the results, it improves the ability to produce documentation if there is a need to prove you are doing the inspections.”

Booke also stresses the value of RFID as an asset management technology, but says ultimately, it’s about ensuring safe work practices and minimizing the risk of potential incidents.

Tracking change
With all of the advances that RFID brings to safety processes, Booke believes the application of RFID technology for the health and safety industry will only increase going forward.

“We’ve seen a huge uptick in the last four or five months in the number of customers who are coming to us and saying they see the need for these sorts of technologies,” he says. “It’s a value proposition as far as saving time, but it also provides them with a central database that allows them to know that the inspections are being done and being done right. That’s a real encouraging sign.”

Mondal is of a similar mind, and like Alan, believes that the technology may soon be ubiquitous. He points to recent efforts to incorporate RFID readers into cell phones, which would make reading tags even more efficient, and eliminate the need for independent reading devices.

For Booke, this is all very good news. The way he sees it, it won’t be long before RFID is entrenched as a health and safety standard, which is a development he feels will ultimately benefit everyone involved. To that end, he says his company has begun using a variation of open-platform technology that will allow users to read tags from other manufacturers, and vice versa.

“It is starting to proliferate throughout the industry,” he says. “Eventually, something like this is going to become an industry standard. In order to help proliferate that, we have moved to new high-frequency tags that allow us to read other producers’ tags, and which allows them to read ours, as well. At the end of the day, it’s making the worker safer.”

In addition, Booke says his company is expanding the scope of their database’s capabilities in hopes of accelerating the growth and reach of the technology.

“We’re trying to move to a much more open system,” he adds. “We have facilitated the use of other assets and allowed users to put other types of equipment into the database— whether it be PPE, whether it be fire extinguishers or ladders— and have included the ability for customers to purchase libraries of inspection questions for those types of assets. One of the things we’re trying to do is move beyond fall protection, so we can allow for the incorporation of this technology across the health and safety field.”

Overall, it would seem that health and safety inspection processes are on the verge of undergoing some dramatic changes for the better, with the end result being a more efficient, standardized, and easily accessible system of documentation.

For Mondal, that’s exactly where the field of health and safety should be headed, and that’s exactly where he expects the ongoing development of these new technologies will lead to.

“I call it safety transparency: knowing from all levels what’s being done to keep people safe. Having all that information transparent and readily available is a coming trend.”