As quarantines and government-mandated shutdowns begin to phase out, brands and businesses continue to work to determine the safest way to reopen in a COVID-altered landscape. One particular technology in consideration to help address operational security challenges (and possible regulatory constraints) are thermal imaging camera systems that purport to be able to scan for fevers.

Thermal imaging cameras are marketing to multiple industries such as manufacturing, healthcare, hospitality and more. Industries from manufacturing to healthcare, hospitality and more have subjected to heavy marketing by companies who sell that specialized technology. Mounted thermal camera would be able to screen for elevated temperatures and identify employees or guests coming into a store or office who may have a fever.

While the technology is intriguing, there are a number of reasons why thermal imaging and temperature detection systems are not the magic solution some have claimed. Understanding the caveats, considerations, and limitations of this technology — and, more importantly, appreciating the fact that these systems are at best one part of a comprehensive security and risk mitigation strategy — is critically important.

The functionality question

The first question with any technology is “does it work?” In the case of thermal imaging camera systems designed to scan for fevers, the answer is uncertain — and full of qualifiers. At airports and in a handful of places where these products have already been used, studies have been mixed about the efficacy of deploying them at scale. While some thermal imaging products have been approved by the FDA for this use, many of those products have very specific requirements in order to be able to function properly.

Some thermal cameras can indeed detect fevers. But to function correctly, most are dependent on certain ambient temperature conditions, very specific positioning, costly and complex facial recognition technology, and a whole host of tech and context-specific considerations that will need to be addressed before use. Many of those considerations, ranging from temperature requirement to data storage concerns, would make the technology unfeasible or unworkable for large numbers of businesses.

Until more concrete evidence is gathered about the use of these devices and systems in real-world settings, potential buyers would be wise to treat marketing claims with an appropriate degree of skepticism.

Costs, complications, and concerns

Efficacy isn’t the only concern. Business leaders looking to mitigate risk for COVID exposure and to keep their customers, employees, and environments safe should be aware of a number of other considerations and complications before investing in a thermal camera or temperature monitoring system. The logistics are daunting, the expense is significant, and the technical challenges are very real.

One issue is that even the best systems tend to return a relatively high number of false positives. Even if someone does have a temp, that doesn’t mean they have been exposed to the coronavirus. And of course, many who do not have a temperature may in fact still be infectious.

This is also an expensive technology — and the solutions that are FDA-approved are also the priciest. Additionally, you will likely need multiple units if you are going to deploy them and monitor access without making entry a logistical nightmare. These units are typically designed to scan one person at a time. Even if access is restricted to one person at a time, most of these systems scan the corner of an individual’s eyes, and with so many people wearing masks, hats, glasses and other headwear, the potential utility may be limited. Calibration issues are a real concern, along with the previously mentioned ambient temperature restrictions. Someone exiting a hot car, or a recent exercise session is likely to trigger the system and lead to delays, confusion, or even confrontations. Recent disputes over mandatory mask policies demonstrate how tricky this issue can be.

Finally, understand that many of these systems require the collection of personal health information. Unless there is a proven way to store that information securely, it could easily create additional liability that buyers may be ill equipped to manage.

The desire for a solution is understandable. The need to make employees and customers feel safe is understandable. People are scared — for their own health, the health of their employees, and for the health of their businesses. They feel the pressure to take action: to do something, and to do it quickly. But decision-makers need to be sure they have a full understanding of the capabilities and limitations of this technology before moving forward. Deploying a thermal imaging/temperature monitoring system and expecting it to solve all your problems could actually make the situation worse, not better.

The full picture

Arguably the single most important piece of information to understand about thermal imaging technology is that it only addresses one piece of the risk puzzle. From travel to exposure, there are so many other factors that go into determining an individual’s risk to have and transmit coronavirus. Accordingly, thermal imaging tech should be just one part of a larger security and risk mitigation program.

So what should that program include, and what does a more holistic/comprehensive approach look like?

From policies to specific solutions, it should be based on individual client needs and circumstances. Start with a comprehensive assessment. Evaluate operational needs, exposure to threats, and the possible impact of those threats. Identify weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Use that information as the starting point for a security plan. Factor in a cost/benefit analysis and the potential ROI of any technology.

Operational modifications alone can have an enormous impact. Staggered shifts. Physical barriers. Regulating and possibly redesigning points of entrance and egress. There is value in learning from past outbreaks around the world with respect to cleaning, PPE, policies and procedures, redesigns, and other measures. It all goes back to creating concentric rings of security. Utilizing any one tool within those rings doesn’t make it a magic pill, but part of a strategic and multifaceted solution. The end goal should be to design and implement a comprehensive plan that meets the duty-of-care requirements for businesses in a post-COVID world.

The bottom line

Reasonable risk mitigation isn’t just about identifying threats but also determining next steps. True security isn’t exclusively about avoiding certain outcomes, but also minimizing the damage if and when undesirable outcomes occur.

Client-facing businesses have to strike a balance between security/safety and creating a welcoming environment for customers. Exploring this intriguing-but-imperfect new technology is a great reminder that the risk environment is about more than just who is sick or will get sick. It’s also about managing strong emotions, strong reactions, and minimizing tension and potential negative perceptions — from workplace violence to customer unrest and dissatisfaction.

Beware of imperfect tools with grandiose claims and potentially misleading marketing. Protecting yourself and your assets requires embracing a smart, thoughtful, and comprehensive approach to health and safety. Stick to the fundamentals. Conduct a holistic assessment, engage in crisis management planning, and educate yourself on the use and utility of all technologies and security solutions. Companies of all sizes that take those steps will find that they can develop an effective and customized security plan that meets their needs and keeps people and properties as safe as possible.

Published June 18, 2020