The COVID-19 office buyers' guide: Temperature scanning
If you want to open your office, here's what to know before investing in thermal scanners.
Photo: Getty Images/Europa Press
Offices around the world are starting to think about how they can safely reopen, and there's a lot of tech companies looking to capitalize on the fear of congregating large groups of people in small spaces. Some technology may help keep office workers safe; some may just give the illusion of safety. Protocol spoke with experts to help you determine which technologies you should actually think about investing in — and which you can avoid.
One of the quickest ways to tell if large groups of people may be sick is to use thermal scanners: devices that use infrared light to measure a person's external temperature. Some are handheld to screen people one by one, and others can be set up on mounts to scan entire crowds at once. Some companies, like FLIR, have been making scanners like these for industrial uses (like scanning electrical equipment) for years, while others have popped up or pivoted to serve the world's exploding interest in knowing people's temperatures amid the pandemic.
But there have been claims that temperature scanners aren't accurate enough to truly determine whether someone has a fever or is just a little hot under the collar, and scanning systems can run into the thousands of dollars. Protocol spoke with companies and experts in the thermal-scanning world and found that overall, these will likely do more good than harm for companies looking to bring their workforce back into the office.
Most of the systems being used by companies that have already been reopening workplaces — even German soccer teams — rely on thermal scanners. The most accurate ones, according to Chris Bainter, the global business development director at FLIR, aim for the tear duct, as it offers "the best correlation to core body temperature." Other parts of the face, like cheeks and the forehead, are more susceptible to the temperature of the world around them, so they give a less accurate reading.
Some systems, such as the ones produced by Seek Thermal, require people to be scanned individually and their temperature compared to a predefined threshold. "It will find your face, and it'll measure your temperature, tell you if you're green or red — whether or not you've exceeded the threshold — and you get out of the way," Bill Parrish, the co-founder and CTO of the company, told Protocol.
Others use data from scanned people to find outliers. FLIR's system, for example, compares the temperature of the person it's scanning to 10 people who were scanned previously. If the change in temperature is larger than the acceptable delta programmed on the scanner (FLIR's comes set to 1.8 degrees, Bainter said, but a company can choose to change it to whatever it wants), then that person being scanned should be pulled out of line.
"You can kind of get a consensus for what is the normal temperature of people that are walking into your place of business," Michael Angarone, assistant professor in infectious diseases at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, told Protocol. "And when you see someone that walks by that's an outlier, that may trigger more of a discussion with that individual."
Thermal scanners can be added into existing security setups. Bainter said that initially companies had been reaching out about handheld devices. But those sorts of devices generally require someone to be well within the CDC-mandated 6 feet of separation to check someone's temperature. Now companies are looking into integrating scanners into their security and access-control systems. "Fixed-mount cameras seem to be favored more by a lot of customers because they integrate in as a permanent fixture, as part of their environment, health and safety programs," Bainter said.
Charles Merino, the national security adviser for X.Labs, the parent company of thermal-imaging company Feevr, said that one of the company's clients has implemented its technology in stands at the entrance to the company parking lot, so in much the same way as you'd need to get a ticket to enter a garage, workers aren't even allowed to park (or perhaps have to go directly to a company medical facility) if their temperature is above a certain range. Other companies, such as Dermalog, which is working with the German soccer team Bayer Leverkusen, envisions devices like these being added into access-control systems at airports, too.
Parrish said that Seek Thermal has been working with Fortune 500 companies and U.S. sports teams to figure out how to integrate thermal cameras into their systems. FLIR's Bainter said that after essential services, the next tranche of workplaces to reopen — including stadiums, casinos, restaurants and hotels — have also started reaching out to the company.
With security an ever-increasing issue in many public places, consumers are increasingly comfortable with security checks. Parrish sees thermal scanning as a similar step in the future: "It'd be pretty much like the metal detector you use at the airport where: You have a jackknife in your pocket, it's going to go off; and if you don't, you kind of just walk through."
Thermal scanners will only ever be able to detect someone with an elevated temperature, but as experts have consistently warned during this pandemic, many people can be infected and transmit the disease for days before they have any symptoms. "When you're asymptomatic, there's no way to pick up on that," Angarone said of scanning systems. "There's no marker that a piece of technology could pick up on."
Many hospitals are using thermal scanners to check staff when they come in for work, Angarone said, but given that it's impossible to know with complete certainty who is sick and who is not, most also require staff to wear masks at all times. "It adds that extra layer," Angarone said. "If I'm carrying the virus, but I'm asymptomatic — [but] if I'm coughing, most if not all the virus is being captured within the mask itself."
"People can commute this thing without even knowing it," Parrish said.
Companies interested in using thermal scanners also need to be aware that where the sensors are placed could alter their efficacy. A person's external temperature is affected by their surroundings, Parrish said. He advises companies to put the cameras indoors and give workers' bodies a few moments to acclimatize to the room's temperature before scanning.
Privacy concerns may also be an issue for workers subjected to everyday scanning. Some companies have facial-recognition technology built into their systems that may be logging employees' faces and recording temperatures, but thermal cameras themselves cannot do that. "FLIR solutions aren't saving any data at all on individuals," Bainter said. "It's merely used as a real-time screening tool."
Ultimately, the experts and companies Protocol spoke with agreed that temperature scanning devices are a good starting point in a more holistic approach to office safety. "This is not a panacea," Parrish said.
Merino told Protocol that Feevr's scanning devices are really just the "first line of defense." The company provides disposable thermometers that companies can give to anyone who is flagged by a Feevr system as potentially having an elevated temperature. That, along with questions about the employee's well being asked by a medical professional, are going to give a far more complete picture of whether someone is unwell.
But these devices aren't cheap. While handheld temperature scanners are only around $100, you have to be right next to someone to use it. If you want to implement one of the infrared thermal scanners from one of the companies mentioned here, you're going to have to shell out. Feevr's kit starts at $3,250 per unit, and Seek Thermal's is a little under $2,000. FLIR makes a wide range of thermal scanning products, but Bainter suggests the devices with the right sensitivity and resolution for places of work cost between $5,000 and $15,000.
"I think there's a reason to get some of these technologies in your place of business," Angarone said. "But I think it's really important also to remember that it's not the end-all be-all way to screen people. You have to add that with social distancing, with potentially wearing masks, depending on what type of business it is."
Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.