Wearables haven’t caught on with consumers as fast as expected, despite the Apple Watch’s cool factor and seeming ubiquity of fitness trackers. Consider just last week, when wearable maker Jawbone announced it was ceasing operations.
The workplace is a different story. A simple wearable device is quietly making inroads into all kinds of work settings — the wireless panic button.
In the wake of several high-profile sexual harassment cases, hotels from New York to Seattle have equipped housekeeping staff with panic buttons, a move supported by hotel workers’ unions. Panic buttons are also becoming standard issue for real estate agents, oil and gas workers, hospital and school staff, as well as other people who work in the field or in potentially dangerous situations.
It’s a case of old-school human resources technology getting an internet-of- things makeover.
Banks and retailers have long relied on hard-wired panic buttons and silent alarms to alert authorities to a robbery or emergency. New generation panic buttons are more personal. Some are dongles — roughly the size and shape of a thumb drive — that are carried on a keychain or slipped into a pocket or purse. Others are mobile apps.
Either way, they rely on Wi-Fi, GPS and cloud-based technology to connect an individual to a company’s security system or local law enforcement. Prices for the devices and networks they’re connected to vary depending on the equipment and system size.
The technical improvements and demand for stepped up worker protections comes at a time of decreased workplace violence overall but an increase in work-related homicides and shootings. The latter jumped 15 percent in 2015, to 354 from 307, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fortune 1000 companies placed workplace violence and active shooter threats behind only cybersecurity risks as the biggest safety threats they face, according to a 2016 survey by Securitas, a Swedish security monitoring company.
Hotels Were Personal Panic-Button Pioneers
New York City hotels were among the first to distribute personal panic buttons to housekeeping staff. The devices were included in a 2012 union contract covering 30,000 hospitality workers that was finalized a year after French politician Dominque Strauss-Kahn made headlines for allegedly sexually assaulting a housekeeper at the Sofitel — a charge that was later dismissed. The same year, an Egyptian businessman pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of sexually abusing a maid at the Pierre, another upscale Manhattan hotel.
What’s more, more than 30 Washington, D.C., hotels have introduced panic buttons in the past year through a deal with a local union, with costs ranging from $40,000 to $50,000 per property for the devices and monitoring systems, according to the Washington Post.
The city’s Mayflower hotel adopted the devices on April 1. That was too late for two maids who accused a wealthy businessman in town for Donald Trump’s inauguration of sexually harassing them while they cleaned his room. John Joseph Boswell pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual abuse and received a suspended sentence and six months’ probation, according to the Post.
A proposed law introduced this spring in Chicago would make panic buttons mandatory for hotel workers there. A 2016 a union survey found that 58 percent of the city’s hotel workers reported having been sexually harassed by a guest, and 49 percent reported having guests expose themselves or answer the door in the nude.
“He was completely naked, standing between the bed and the desk. He asked me for shampoo. I had to jump over the beds in order to get to the door and leave the room,” the Unite Here Local 1 union survey quoted one hotel employee saying.
Panic buttons’ rollout hasn’t come without controversy. In June, a superior court judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by local, state and national hospitality industry groups against the city of Seattle after residents there overwhelmingly approved a union-backed initiative calling for panic buttons and other hotel worker safety measures.
The industry groups, which represent hotel owners, objected to provisions in the law that required them to keep records of harassment and assaults and ban guests for such behaviors for three years, as well as provide workers with expanded health care, wages and shift work protections.
According to a Seattle Hotel Association statement about the court’s June 9 decision, the law forces properties to choose between protecting guests or employees. The association is considering next steps.
Keeping Employees Safe Minus Guns
Such objections haven’t stopped other organizations, including hospitals, municipal governments and schools, from embracing panic buttons — or at least considering them.
In April, the city of Milwaukee was deciding whether to give panic buttons to employees following the fatal shooting of a city building inspector during a carjacking the previous month. A city study of the issue is considering the feasibility of issuing GPS-based devices to more than 1,400 city employees to use to protect themselves in lieu of carrying a weapon, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.
The city would need to decide whether alerts would be directed to the agency the employee works for or directly to the police department. The city’s Employee Relations and Administration departments have until the end of July to report back on the feasibility study, according to a spokesman.
One panic button maker, RF Technologies, sells a system that schools, hospitals and hotels can plug into existing Wi-Fi or wide area networks and connect to security cameras.
Real estate brokers suggest agents carry panic buttons when they show houses in case they encounter a thief posting as a prospective buyer. Self-defense seminars for real estate agents include instructions on using the devices.
Finally, a cautionary note: Panic buttons are intended to keep people safe, but one recent incident shows that they can be manipulated to do just the opposite.
An Associated Press investigation found that panic buttons the Colombian government’s office of National Protection distributed to about 400 human rights activists, labor organizers and journalists had design flaws that hostile parties could theoretically exploit to disable the devices, eavesdrop on users or track their movements. An official with the Chinese manufacturer of the devices said the company is updating its software to address the problems.
It’s a good reminder for companies using or contemplating buying the devices to double check security features.
Michelle V. Rafter is a business journalist in Portland, Oregon, reporting on workforce and tech for Talent Economy and other publications. If you have a comment or a column idea for her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.