Thermal imaging

Temperature screening for COVID-19

Many businesses are having to consider the logistical and legal aspects involved in bringing people back into offices and workplaces, as we start to re-open businesses following the first wave of COVID-19.

HR Professionals are frequently being asked about technical solutions to help manage risks, from online risk assessments, to non-contact thermometers and heat-detection cameras and software. Some of the latest imaging systems can apparently also use facial recognition to track compliance with social distancing measures.

There are, however, some important aspects of temperature screening which we’d advise businesses to consider closely, before embarking upon costly and potentially risky screening programmes.

The risks and benefits of temperature screening

Temperature screening can be quick and easy to complete, without any contact between the person being checked and the person holding the thermometer. This is even more so if thermal cameras are used, because the person checking the resulting images doesn’t need to be in the same office.

That means less Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) costs, less transmission risk for all involved, less training costs and potentially increased accuracy of the measurement (some manufacturers claim that thermal imaging systems are faster and more accurate than physical measurement).

However, the significant weakness of temperature screening is that large numbers of people do not seem to display any symptoms of COVID-19, even though they are infectious. One robust study showed the asymptomatic carrier rate may account for 40% of all cases. That, in turn, means temperature screening could miss nearly half the infected people entering the workplace.

There is also a fairly significant amount of calibration required in order to use thermal imaging systems. Because they’re measuring temperature on the surface of the skin, which is usually lower than internal measures, the systems are programmed to adjust for the difference. The systems can be affected by the environment they’re used in too, such as in sustained direct sunlight.

There are also lots of legal considerations to how the resulting data is recorded and used. Do you have consent from the employee to record medical data is an important starting point. The CIPD suggest that taking an employee’s temperature without consent is likely to be unlawful. Who can access the results, how they’re stored and how they’re shared are also incredibly important points.

Considering how you manage data and results if you have third-party contracted staff conducting testing, or providing reception or security services, is critically important.

The Office of the Information Commissioner has shared some very useful guidance for employers, which clearly shows that any data gathered must be lawful, fair and transparent. Sadly, there’s very little case precedent available about COVID-19 screening, so it’s probably best to be cautious when planning any screening activities.

 Practical points about using thermal imaging to detect COVID-19

 There are some points to consider if you’re thinking about using temperature screening to manage risks in the workplace:

  • Ensuring you have the consent, or implied consent, of those you’re screening is essential
  • Making sure you can demonstrate effective controls for storing and sharing any results is critical
  • Informing those being screened with proper signage, consent forms or policy updates is important
  • Robust procedures about what to do following a positive result is essential
  • Being aware that thermal screening may miss a significant number of infected people is also critical

Please contact us if you would like any further information about our occupational health services, or learn more about how to refer employees who may need support here.