Biometrics for Deskless Workers

16-May-2020 Ryan Pimlott Insider

It is becoming increasingly more important for companies to evaluate and replace their existing antiquated technologies and processes with more secure and effective biometric technologies, specifically for the authentication of their employees, contractors, and visitors. Facial biometrics is the most reliable and accurate form of authentication available today and provides an employee with a seamless & hygienic experience they don’t receive with badge readers, key-codes, and fingerprint readers. I’ve had the opportunity to deploy our facial biometric technology within organizations of all sizes across several industries and have formulated a set of questions about biometrics in the workplace. These questions are not specific to Oloid or facial biometrics*

Recently, I had the opportunity of sharing some of these questions with Gavin Jones. Gavin is the Head of Signaling at an international leader in railroad infrastructures, which employs tens of thousands of workers across more than a thousand sites.

Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Gavin: My name is Gavin Jones, I have worked in the UK Rail Industry for 20 years, as of this year.  The vast majority of my career has been in the construction and commissioning of multi-disciplinary projects.  I joined the industry in the year 2000 as a trainee Signaling Engineer, and today I currently have a split role as Head of Signaling for all of our UK Signaling activities, as well as taking on the Project Directors role for a new five-year Framework contract we have recently mobilized.  My day-to-day responsibilities vary significantly; covering everything from cost and financial forecasting/planning, identifying and tendering projects through to technical or project management support.  Also, a significant amount of my time is spent supporting the teams I manage and ensure the business has the adequate skills and resources to meet current project commitments, as well as building a future capability to continue expanding our capability in-line with the organization’s long-term objectives.

What are the practical challenges of offering a badge/RF card or mobile security for worksites?

Gavin: Workforce safety is at the forefront of everything we do in this industry, and as such we have strict regulations that govern the number of hours and shifts that staff can work, to ensure they are sufficiently rested between shifts. This can be particularly challenging to control with the vast majority of current site entry systems being administered by access controllers who are responsible for manually inputting an individual's card details into an online system that records their shift data, and notifies the controller where they have not had a sufficient rest period or are exceeding their permitted hours. Also, the system is exposed where smaller sites may not operate controller led entry systems, instead relying on staff signing in over the phone with a central control centre. These systems are embedded in our supplier payment process, aiming to ensure that the individual must have signed into a site for their sponsor company to claim payments for the works undertaken, however the system has limitations in the fact that photographs on ID cards are only updated every ten years, making it difficult at times for a controller to accurately identify the individual and therefore providing opportunity for certain employees to exploit the system, by asking a friend or colleague to sign in on their behalf. The system also fails to detect if an individual has obtained a second card fraudulently.

How familiar are you with biometrics?

Gavin: I had limited experience with facial biometrics until I began discussing the subject a few months back with Ryan, from Oloid. I have utilized facial recognition technology in the past both on my phone, and at Passport control points, otherwise my only other experience would be fingerprint recognition.  Previously, I never considered the use of facial biometrics for access control to our sites, as to the large part our systems seemed to work.  However, since speaking with the experts at Oloid I have started to see the numerous possibilities to deploy facial biometric technology within our industry.

What is your perspective on using biometrics for authentication?

Gavin: As I mentioned above, the safety of our workforce and of the infrastructure we work on, is of paramount importance.  Whilst the systems currently operating are underpinned by online databases that can enable access controllers to check competence, working hours and staff details, the human factor in the process could undoubtedly prove to be the weakest link and vulnerable to errors posing a greater overall risk to the system.  Though our systems are widely respected by employees, and whilst I would say that if administered correctly, they provide a good site access control system, anything that can remove the possibility of human error or the possibility of an individual deceiving the system could only serve to enhance worksite safety. It can help in a better management of fatigue and ensure each individual has the correct skills and competence to undertake their duties on that site. 

What are the potential risks of not having a reliable and accurate authentication process?

Gavin: Something I’ve already discussed but will definitely reiterate for the readers. The main concerns for me would be that any system which did not ensure that the worker signing in, was the same individual as the profile that a site access controller is presented from the database, could mean that someone was on our worksite without the correct skills, competencies, knowledge, or experience. On a complex worksite, this could increase the risk of accidents, through a lack of understanding of the processes or regulations designed to keep the staff on-site safe.

How do you implement security at your worksites and how is the approach different for desk and deskless workers?

Gavin: I have detailed some of the current systems that are in place for worksite security, and whilst this will differ depending on the size and duration of a project, the common factors would normally be that systems are generally card based and rely on photographic physical ID.  Larger projects may also use this to control access through turnstiles or for access to site offices, whereas smaller projects ordinarily have site cabins where staff visit to sign into the site before commencing work. These do not operate a physical barrier control system (such as turnstiles). The majority of our offices have touch-card or fob systems for entry into the office space, however this is not linked to a national database, such as what is in use for our site workers.

Are there any special considerations for contractors?

Gavin: Not really to be honest, the industry operates a card-based scheme that any site contract worker would need to hold.  This would be checked accessing any site in the same manner as an employee.  Presently for contract office workers, there are no specific controls that are in operation.

What about protected areas? Are there restricted areas where you need to control access? How does that process work?

Gavin: Access to the sites would probably be of most importance for requiring accurate control, as the requirement to enter a worksite is a valid safety certification, which is rectified every two years. As detailed above, on major project sites this may be controlled through turnstile or gated access systems, however on the vast majority of sites staff sign in at a cabin before accessing the site (often at a different location).

How important is it to have analytics & audit trails at your worksites? Real-time communications (ie. Push Notifications)?

Gavin: Knowing who is on-site at all times is one of the most important aspects of managing our worksites, firstly to ensure the correct skills and competence to manage the projects are always present, however more critically as our worksites can be spread over a large area, (sometimes a number of miles) in the event of any emergency that required evacuation of the site, or emergency procedures to be implemented, our systems must provide reliable and up to date information of who is on-site at any point in time.  This also applies to the management of fatigue, especially as workers are approaching their maximum duration on site, push notifications to site management and the workers would be hugely beneficial in ensuring workers do not exceed planned hours without the necessary authority and risk assessments being obtained and undertaken.

What are the areas where you would like to see innovation and improvements across the industry?

Gavin: The provision of a system that is fool proof would be a huge benefit to the industry, as site access management underpins so many of the safety systems we operate on all our sites, however I would be keen to explore how biometrics such as facial recognition could be utilized to link a number of systems to provide a single instant check when accessing a worksite to provide certainty on all aspects of worker management, such as site certification, technical competence for role, worker restrictions and fatigue management.  A real time alert system for the site management could also provide opportunity to streamline activities on site, ensuring that managers on site know as soon as workers have signed in and contact them immediately in case of any emergency.

Do you have any additional thoughts on facial biometrics at the workplace?

Gavin: I think the accuracy and reliability of facial recognition could clearly eradicate deliberate attempts to fool current systems, as well as the risk of human error in a system which relies on manual checking of photographic physical ID and working hours.  Additionally, the possibility of utilizing technology such as tablets for facial recognition checks would mean that the same robust and reliable access systems could easily scale and be applied to all of our sites. This could be applied through camera technology on larger projects with gated or turnstile access, but equally through mobile tablet technology on remote sites currently relying on phone-based systems for signing in and out when undertaking work on-site.

I sincerely thank Gavin for his responses to the questions above. From his 20 years in the industry, it is obvious that he values the employees’ safety at the worksites, above everything else. A few key takeaways that I would like to highlight from his responses, include:

  1. Worker safety is the number one priority. Their health and safety are directly correlated to the number of hours worked per shift and between shifts. This makes the accurate tracking of their hours extremely important.
  2. It is of utmost criticality to accurately identify who is coming and going from a worksite
    1. Current processes are adequate but have human intervention at multiple points, so there is significant room for improvement around:
      1. Reducing the risk of human error
      2. Mitigating against deliberate attempts to access a site unauthorized
  3. Buddy swiping
  4. Identification falsification
  5. Not only is it important to ensure the identification of a person is accurate, but to confirm “real-time” they have the required skills and certifications to access.

Organizations are constantly exposed to risks, but if investments are made in newer and futuristic technologies keeping people, and processes in mind, these organizations can ensure the most adequate safety & security, while avoiding expensive inefficiencies & possible consequences.

By Ryan Pimlott
Director, Solutions Consulting
Oloid Inc.
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