Protecting Employees

By Minda Zetlin

During an emergency, RFID personnel safety solutions can help you locate workers in real time.

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Roughly 10 years ago, radio frequency identification providers began offering personnel safety solutions to monitor workers on offshore oil rigs and in other hazardous environments. In the event of an emergency, these solutions allow com­panies to view workers' locations in real time to see who made it safely to muster stations and who needs to be rescued.

Identec Solutions, for example, launched WatcherOffShore in 2003 to monitor workers on oil rigs in the North Sea (see Active UHF RFID Tags Muster Support for Oil Rigs). Since then, adoption has been growing, and the company predicts that within five years, all North Sea oil rigs will use active RFID tags to track personnel.

Photo: iStockphoto

Often, personnel safety solutions are deployed in conjunction with real-time location systems (RTLS) designed to track assets. Mexican oil-industry maintenance and transportation company Cotemar, for example, uses an RFID solution from AeroScout to automatically monitor employees, and the services they use, on four offshore platforms that serve as their living quarters while they work on oil rigs in the Gulf (see Cotemar Uses RTLS to Manage Safety, Supplies for Offshore Oil Workers).

Several years ago, RTLS providers developed personnel safety solutions that enable hospitals to monitor caregivers who work on emergency and psychiatric wards, where it's not uncommon for them to be assaulted by patients. Florida's Flagler Hospital, for example, recently deployed Ekahau's Staff Safety & Workflow Optimization within its behavioral-health unit (see Flagler Hospital Improves Caregiver Communications With Ekahau's RFID-Over-Wi-Fi). Many hospitals that employ RFID to track assets add on staff safety applications in their emergency rooms, says Mark Norris, Ekahau's CEO.

Photo: GuardRFID

In early 2013, Idaho's Skyview High School learned about the staff safety solution deployed at Napa State Hospital (see California State Hospitals Expand Personal-Duress System). The school contacted Ekahau, which modified its health-care solution for the education sector. Now, Skyview teachers and other staff members can press a button on a badge to call for help in an emergency (see Idaho School Installs RTLS to Make Students Safer). Since then, Ekahau has deployed the solution at six other U.S. secondary schools and says many other schools have expressed interest in it. Airista and GuardRFID also offer safety solutions for the education sector.

Unlike other RFID applications, deciding whether to deploy a personnel safety solution is typically not determined by return on investment. In all these settings, using RFID to track personnel can make the difference between life and death. Still, employing these solutions in industrial and other sectors can help companies comply with the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration requirements for emergency evacuation plans, says Zahir Abji, CEO of GuardRFID.

Most personnel safety solutions are designed to protect workers' privacy. They typically track workers by zone, and focus on specific locations only when necessary. But the solutions vary by type of RFID technology used and features offered. Here are some issues to consider to help you choose the right solution for your environment. For more details, see the vendor table on opposite page.

Technology Options
Several personnel safety solutions leverage the 802.11 Wi-Fi networks organizations have installed at their facilities. The active RFID tags communicate with Wi-Fi access points, so companies can save the time and cost involved in installing fixed readers.

"Wi-Fi is widely seen as the most broadly established and most attractive technology to use," says John Devlin, practice director, security and ID at ABI Research. "That's partly because of lower cost in terms of infrastructure and readers and the access points that are already in place. It seems to be the way most people are going."

But there are other technology options. "It comes down to the particular requirements of the end user," Devlin says. Ultrawide-band, for example provides greater accuracy but smaller read ranges, he says. Agip Kazakhstan North Caspian Operating Co. deployed a UWB personnel safety solution from S3 ID (see Agip North Caspian Oil Platform Adopts RTLS Technology).

GuardRFID uses 433 MHz active RFID technology, which Abji says travels better through objects and liquids than Wi-Fi does. Its solution can locate people within a range of 6 to 10 feet, which he says is more accurate than most Wi-Fi solutions. The tags work by emitting a beacon at an adjustable regular interval, such as once every two minutes. "We pick up those messages at various readers and use an algorithm to determine location," he says.

To view a larger version of this chart, click here.

Ekahau says with its Wi-Fi tags and an 802.11 network, it typically achieves 8 to 10 feet accuracy. By adding its infrared (wire-free) location beacons, it can achieve 3-foot accuracy.

Identec Solutions employs ultrahigh-frequency active tags, which can be deployed inexpensively to give widespread coverage over a large area such as an oil rig, according to James Pentreath, global head of oil and gas and mining and tunnel sales. "We tested different options, and 868 MHz in Europe and 920 MHz in the United States are the most reliable for oil rigs and mining situations," he says. "A lot of it comes down to range, reliability and robust transmissions, which are very important criteria when operating in these challenging environments."

The batteries in most active tags have a life span of roughly four to five years. Ekahau's B4 Badge tag has rechargeable batteries that typically last a shift or a few days, depending on use.

Photo: Ekahau

Safety Features
Many personnel safety RFID tags incorporate a panic button that allows a user to signal for help in an emergency. Some tags are bidirectional, allowing whoever responds to the panic call to send a signal back to the user that the message was received and help is on the way.

Ekahau's B4 Badge tag has an LED screen that can be used to send a brief message to the wearer. "It can communicate, 'Yes, we've received your call for assistance and here are some things we want you to do in the meantime,'" Norris says. "The software-programmable tags enable multi-use scenarios," he adds. For the company's new school-targeted product, the red button signals a disciplinary event that requires a security response, and the blue button indicates a medical emergency.

Some tags can make an educated guess as to when a user might need help, even when that user can't press a panic button on his or her own. Ekahau, for example, equips some tags with accelerometers to detect the tag's orientation, which could indicate that an employee has fallen. "We've done some studies on what are the most common angles," Norris says. "If it's at a 90-degree angle to horizontal, that usually indicates standing or sitting." A 45-degree angle could signal trouble and trigger an alarm. RFID providers typically call this the "man down" feature.

"All our tags have motion sensors," says Mark Gallant, VP of industrial marketing at AeroScout. "Our application can track dwell times, so if a person is in a location longer than expected or doesn't move for more than two minutes, we can send a vibrating signal." A worker who's simply taking a break can press a responding button to say that all is well; a lack of response may mean that something is wrong. AeroScout tags also include gas sensors that can detect odorless toxic gases in mines, tunnels and other environments. The tags send an alert if dangerous gas is detected.

In the chemical, energy and industrial sectors, most companies have evacuation plans that include muster points, where employees gather in an emergency. Knowing as quickly as possible who has reported in and who remains unaccounted for can help responders save lives. GuardRFID supplements its tags with exciters just inside and outside the doors at muster locations, giving responders a quick and easy way to determine who's still missing. "That gives us automatic role-call capability," Abji says.

Photo: AeroScout

"We've added evacuation monitoring," Gallant says. "Many industries need to evacuate workers in a controlled manner, so they need to know where those workers are. Our system will give you in real time how many people are still in the hazard area and how many have reached a muster point. For those who haven't, you can click on them from the dashboard to find out where they are and dispatch first responders."

This feature is popular with many types of companies including cruise lines, he adds. "If you have an engine fire and can guarantee you've gotten everyone out of the engine room, you can flood the area with CO2 and put out the fire quickly," he says.

Identec's WatcherOffShore solution helps with mustering in emergencies that require workers to use lifeboats to evacuate the rig, Pentreath reports. "In muster zones, the operator is able to see how many people have boarded the lifeboat," he says. Some lifeboats hold as many as 75 people, so having an automated way to know who is and isn't on board makes a big difference when time is short. "As you walk through, your name appears on a screen and you're registered," he says. If someone gets on a lifeboat where he or she wasn't expected, the system automatically alerts the operator at the person's assigned lifeboat as well.

Integrated Safety Applications
In addition to personnel tracking, RFID safety solutions can be integrated with other applications to further protect employees. Access control, for example, can ensure that only authorized workers enter restricted zones.

GuardRFID's personnel tags can also be used to lock or unlock a gate or door. An exciter emits a low-frequency signal to activate a response from the tag; otherwise, the wearer would have to wait for the tag to emit a beacon on its usual cycle. "We can deploy two capture zones, one on each side of a door," Abji says. That way, rather than just identifying that a tag wearer went through a doorway, you can easily determine whether the user was entering or exiting.

To view a larger version of this chart, click here.

Identec offers a collision avoidance system to help prevent workers from being run over in tunnels and mines. "The system warns drivers if someone is 150 meters, 100 meters or 25 meters away," Pentreath says. "At 25 meters, which is a critical distance, alarms go off and it's possible to bring the vehicle to a halt."

North Sea oil rigs commonly use a system called DaWinci to schedule helicopter transport for employees on and off rigs and keep track of who's on board, Pentreath says.

DaWinci contains detailed information on each employee, and the Watcher solution has been designed to integrate with it and access that information as well. "Imagine you're an offshore worker, you arrive at the airport and you check in with DaWinci," he says. "We're integrated with the system, so as you arrive it tells us your next of kin, whether you're emergency personnel, and which your primary and secondary muster stations are. This is all crucial information in an emergency situation."

Pentreath believes the energy and mining industries are just starting to discover the many ways active RFID solutions can help keep workers safe in hazardous environments. "When mobile phones first came out, you could only use them for calling," he says. "Then came SMS, and now look what you can do. We know the same is true in other markets, such as retail." He believes we'll continue to see technology innovations, which will help fuel greater adoption. As in other markets, he says, companies will ask, "Now that I've got this technology, what else can I do with it?"