CALGARY â€” When last year's ferocious Alberta wildfire threatened Suncor Energy's oilsands upgrader near Fort McMurray, the rush to safely remove hundreds from the area provided a rare large-scale test of technology that can let companies know the location of every single worker.
The evacuation highlighted how radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology â€” long used to track products in warehouses, equipment in mines and even cattle in feedlots â€” is increasingly being used to monitor workers on big Canadian industrial sites.
Everyone at the Suncor (TSX:SU) site last May was wearing an RFID fob, which identifies who and where they were and includes a "panic button" that can be pushed to summon help, said Doreen Cole, the company's senior vice-president of oilsands maintenance and reliability.
"Over 1,000 workers were confirmed as safely evacuated in about 30 minutes," she said, adding that most were not Suncor staff but contractors performing maintenance during a planned shutdown.
Safety is not the only reason for their use. Suncor CEO Steve Williams said on a recent conference call that the technology â€” piloted since the fall of 2015 â€” had been so beneficial in terms of productivity that the fobs will be expanded to the Syncrude Canada oilsands upgrader during future maintenance shutdowns.
An Illinois-based company called Zebra Technologies has also put the devices in the shoulder pads of NFL players to allow coaches to track their movements on the field. And some cruise lines have installed them in passengers' wristbands to figure out who is on and off the ship.
Ed Nabrotzky, chief solutions officer for Omni-ID, a Rochester, N.Y., company that makes RFID fobs, said applications that track people at industrial work sites are a small but growing market for RFID devices.
"I know of maybe 20 to 25 companies that are providing this kind of industrial tracking device," he said. "You might have a $25-million or $30-million global market."
Suncor's RFID system was purchased through technology consulting firm Accenture.
Geoff Hill, Accenture's Calgary office manager, said the personnel tracking systems are attracting a lot of attention in Canada given their many uses. The data they provide can improve efficiency by identifying choke points in worker flows. They also monitor how many contractors are on site and for how long, which can help reconcile billing.
Installing a system requires integrating dozens or hundreds of wireless transponders to gather data and transmit it to a central website for analysis. Hill said for companies to change the way work is done, engaging with staff, their unions and contractors is key.
"When all of that happens, it's very positive," he said.
The prospect of an employer tracking a worker's every move does raise privacy issues. But so far at Suncor, the safety offered by the technology has trumped privacy concerns, said Ken Smith, president of Unifor 707-A. The union represents about 3,450 Suncor workers, including about 500 who regularly wear the trackers.
"'Big Brother is watching' is becoming more a part of the workplace," he said. "But so far they haven't had one disciplinary hearing where it was indicated those wearing tracking devices were out of the workplace area or wasting time or anything like that."
A second type of RFID fob is worn by Suncor employees on site when the upgrader is running. It identifies people and has a panic button but also detects harmful gases and raises an alarm if there's no movement for a period of time, possibly indicating someone is ill or injured.
Suncor says it looks at aggregate data from five or more workers when analyzing its tracking data to avoid invading the privacy of individuals.
Follow @HealingSlowly on Twitter.
Dan Healing, The Canadian Press