How changes to panic button technology & the move from 3G to 4G could affect your safety tools
by Chris Holbert
May 22, 2019

The construction industry is historically one of the most accident and industry-prone industries. According to the most recently available data, 1 in 5 workplace deaths reported in 2017 occurred in construction. In an effort to mitigate workplace injury risks construction company owners and managers have been implementing various new smart technologies. These range from connected construction vests and hard hats that report on workers’ vital health signs and environmental conditions to devices that monitor workers’ location, detect falls and function as an emergency panic button.

Knowing where employees are in the field can be a priceless tool in the face of an emergency. If a large-scale accident occurs at a jobsite, a manager can easily "check-in” on the locations of employees carrying SOS or panic buttons. This can help eliminate confusion as to who might have been affected by the incident.

Another benefit of panic buttons on jobsites is fall detection. Workers do not always fully comply with safety harness standards and equipment can fail, which makes complete prevention of falls impossible. An employee equipped with an SOS button could trigger an alert if he/she became trapped by equipment or other materials. A rescue and medical aid could immediately be provided, versus waiting for another employee to notice the incident occurred.

The potential benefits of panic buttons on construction jobsites are unquestionable. However, the reliability of devices already in the field could be put at risk in the coming months. As telecom providers prepare to upgrade networks to new 5G capabilities, some of these devices may become obsolete.

Many panic buttons, also known as mobile personal emergency response (MPER) devices, were designed using 3G or even 2G technologies because the data being transferred by the device is light and doesn’t require the higher speeds of a 4G network—let alone 5G. As networks are upgraded, 2G and 3G devices could lose coverage and become unreliable. This is because telecom companies will be trading out the 2G and 3G technologies on cell-phone towers for faster 4G and 5G technologies.

Panic buttons operating on 2G or 3G networks will not be compatible with the new network speeds and their functionality could experience drops in coverage in areas where 2G and 3G coverage no longer exists.

Ericsson, an information communication technology company that installs 5G technologies on cell-phone towers, predicts that by 2023, 20% of the world’s population will have 5G coverage. While this will infinitely speed up heavy data transfers like streaming video, the problem that exists for the mPERS industry and end users is that 4G devices have yet to be introduced to the mass market.

The basic functionality of panic button devices has not required rapid advancement of the technology that powers their operation. This and other factors affecting the mPERS industry have resulted in a device drought.

There hasn’t been a lot of hype about upgrading mPERS devices in the past because more advanced 4G models have simply not been available to sell. Now, manufacturers are forced to catch up with changing networking standards in order to continue to provide the safety and peace of mind customers rely on from their devices.

Individuals who rely on mPERS devices to ensure their safety and well-being need to know if their devices will become unreliable as network upgrades are made. This can be accomplished by contacting the device manufacturer or the company providing monitoring services for the device. If a construction company discovers its devices are operating on 2G or 3G networks, it would be wise to upgrade the panic buttons as soon as possible. Discuss options with service providers to turn in existing devices for 4G models.

Construction companies that have panic buttons in the field may also want to consider implementing a regular testing schedule to ensure the devices are operational and have coverage at all jobsites. Each time a project begins at a new jobsite, one device could be triggered to ensure that SOS messages are being transmitted.

This simple test would only take a few seconds and would quickly determine if backup safety measures need to be taken or if the panic buttons can be relied on at that location.

Companies may find that jobsites in more rural areas will continue to have 2G or 3G coverage, while jobsites in urban areas will lose coverage sooner. This is simply because of the tendency for telecom companies to upgrade towers in urban areas with dense populations and large business centers first.

Transitioning from 2G or 3G panic buttons to 4G devices could come with an added cost. But it is an essential upgrade to ensure ongoing protection for employees. Upgrading devices could also give employers access to new device features that will make it even easier to monitor employee safety.

Regardless, in order to continue to provide employees with a safe working environment, contractors in the industry will need to investigate what networks the panic buttons already issued to workers operate on and, if necessary, upgrade them.