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Ensuring employee safety and security in an emergency: the smartphone approach

(Image credit: Image Credit: Jaelynn Castillo / Unsplash)

Global businesses have procedures in place to protect employees travelling overseas to remote or possibly dangerous countries, but recent terror attacks in the UK have brought the health and safety issues companies face abroad to the home front. The challenge multi-nationals face is how to ensure the safety and security of large workforces in the UK in the event of a major emergency.

Facebook’s safety-check does allow users to alert family and friends to their situation in case of an emergency, but there is no immediacy or accountability with this feature. Corporates need a robust, purpose-built service; software that can be scaled across a large workforce that employees can use to quickly confirm their safety should an emergency situation arise.

New innovations in health and safety are often rare and trying to persuade companies to use a completely new form of technology to ensure the safety of their staff is difficult, as the technology must have proven reliability and privacy controls. However, many businesses already have trust in cutting edge satellite and location-based technology, which has been used for years by major banks, insurers, non-governmental organisations and oil companies, enabling these parties to look after their personnel in some of the most dangerous places on Earth. Using this established technology is an easier sell and could culminate in the development of tech that is now serving mobile users in the UK in those same hostile areas.

Safety by default is not necessarily in the same place

New requirements to provide a duty of care and to actively remove someone from potential danger, has seen companies across the world readily adopting mobile tracking technology. Unfortunately, this has had a mixed reaction from employees, many of whom tend to resist corporate-imposed schemes.  Most people are quite happy to share their locations with applications they use in their personal lives, like Uber and Deliveroo, that allow them to accurately receive an online service. However, they are not accustomed to and are often wary of sharing their location data with an employer. This has led to friction between employers and employees, raising concerns about data protection and privacy infringements.

In ‘danger by default’ areas – those where an emergency situation is more likely to occur – employees are more open to active tracking due to the obvious risks. The concept of ‘safety by default’ on the other hand, has presented UK businesses and employees with a new problem: how to find a balance between duty of care and privacy.

To build and sustain employer/employee trust, technology must be unobtrusive, putting an individual’s privacy first. This can be achieved by using location-based technology which will only contact or share the location of an employee in they are in an area affected by an emergency. Employees want reassurance that they are not being constantly tracked, therefore it is important to always notify them when their location has been identified.

The recent false-alarm panic (opens in new tab) in Hawaii  placed a seed of doubt into minds of many that technology – and those whose hands is it is – may not be as accurate or trustworthy as we’d hoped. There is clearly a need for technology that provides far more than a mere blanket warning to all, and incorporates a trusted and secure, platform.

This type of technology has become a priority for many businesses following recent terror attacks in the UK, such as the bombing of the Manchester Arena and the attack on London Bridge. These events demonstrated the difficulty businesses face when trying to account for the safety and whereabouts of their employees. Locating multiple unaccounted-for colleagues in transit or working remotely in a large city is a new challenge for many, and no easy feat.

So how can organisations achieve this level of communication in areas that we think should be safe? HR and IT departments have been searching for an effective means of communicating and checking in with staff, without being intrusive or contravening privacy and data protection laws. Software must be easily scalable across a workforce of any size, and simple enough for employees to quickly confirm their safety should an emergency situation arise.

Compliance must be by default

Major UK brands are looking to roll out new privacy-first tracking technology across their workforces, in the form of a mobile app, which can provide a duty of care that until now has been impossible to guarantee. Crucially, this kind of technology is benign in nature and incorporates and is not designed to monitor the productivity of employees. Instead, it locates them in the event of a terror attack, emergency or natural disaster and informs them of the danger.

Staff members that have the mobile app on their smartphones will be automatically identified and warned about the situation if they are in an affected area. The mobile app only reveals an employee’s location if they are inside or near a geography of concern, ensuring a balance between duty of care and privacy. It then provides ongoing support to help guide the user to an area of safety via push notifications, SMS or email, or more personalised one-to-one chat support if required. This ensures that employees privacy is withheld, giving them the confidence to use the application and trust

As with any location-aware software, privacy law must be considered. Today’s software and apps allow HR and IT departments to know employees’ locations during an emergency, but still comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Data Protection Bill, as well as with Section 2c of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, by verifying lone worker safety and fulfilling a duty of care to their teams.

Mobile technology has been developed to such a level that this can be easily achieved. However, alongside adoption of this technology must come education – of both employers and staff – on the security and privacy aspects of the technology, in order to build and maintain mutual trust.

Raymond Kenney, Managing Director, Track24 (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Jaelynn Castillo / Unsplash

Raymond Kenney has been Managing Director at Track24 since January 2017. He founded Inquiron, a software development company that was eventually acquired, and has held roles at Aegis Defence Services and Ardan Energy Services. He has an MBA from the London Business School.