KANSAS CITY, MO. – As a growing number of meat and poultry processing plants have been forced to cut back production or temporarily close as the result of workers being infected by the coronavirus (COVID-19), most of the facilities have stepped up in-plant precautions to protect workers. Initially, many companies’ first line of defense was to take the temperature of each employee entering its facilities using handheld, non-contact forehead thermometers. At least one company developed a more efficient and automated method for screening workers without compromising social distancing protocols.

Tyson Foods Inc., on April 13, announced it had invested in 150 infrared walk-through temperature scanners, which it had already installed in several of its plants with plans to use the systems at all of its facilities.

The fever-detection systems being used by Tyson and an increasing number of food companies are manufactured and supplied by UK-based Thermoteknix. The 35-year-old company has used its infrared scanning technology to offer solutions to a variety of industries and in diverse applications – from aerospace engineering to IndyCar racing and even imaging cameras and target location systems for military applications and law-enforcement agencies. To date, Thermoteknix has about 1,000 imaging systems installed in the United States, with the cement industry making up the bulk of its customer base there as well as in Asia and the Middle East. That customer base is rapidly expanding in the United States to include food manufacturing companies, including meat and poultry processing operations.

Richard Hames, sales director for the company, said its fever screening system (FevIR Scan) was first developed in about 2003, after cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) were first discovered in Asia. Since then, the company’s Fev-IR Scan screening systems have become more common in airports, hospitals and other high-traffic public venues, especially in Asian markets. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, Tyson has invested in the next generation of that technology, FevIR Scan 2, the skin temperature measurement system that has also recently been purchased by many other food companies in the United States and across the globe.

“We’re not a huge company so we focus on a few specific applications,” Hames said, for customers in the industrial, defense or fever-screening segment.    

“The actual cameras, the way they are used, the software, is very specific to how the end user wants to use it. They are very simple to use, simple to set up and operate,” he said.

“There’s been a lot of interest in America recently; a great deal of interest from the food companies, from pharmaceutical companies, large manufacturers and even large offices.”

There always are a few companies that are quick to adopt technologies like fever screening, Hames said, and Tyson was one of those pioneers.

“They appreciated and they could see that the system we had developed was exactly what they were looking for, because we had listened to customers in the past,” he said.

Part of what the company learned from listening was the appeal of a system that could be set up in minutes, not hours or days.  

Given the inherent risks during the pandemic, the installation and instructions to operate the FevIR Scan 2 were designed to be simple and clear and the solution includes a complete system, not just components.

“It had to be easy and quick to install and easy to operate,” Hames said.

Ease of installation became a priority during the COVID-19-induced social distancing protocols. For Thermoteknix, that meant rather than face-to-face consultation between customers and engineers or installers, questions are addressed electronically or over the phone and the system is designed to simplify set up, user education and training.

“You literally plug it into the wall and it’s up and running within minutes,” Hames said

Most food companies, including Tyson, install the FevIR Scan system at each of their facilities’ entry points, and can include facilities ranging from processing plants to warehouses to corporate offices.

“It can handle 100 people a minute,” Hames said. “That’s not a problem so huge volumes of people can  go through very quickly and it will detect them very quickly; the system is very sensitive. As long as they are funneling through an entrance, a doorway or something like that, that’s the main criteria.”  

The system like the one Tyson invested in is designed to screen people walking through the scanner in groups. If a person is identified as having an elevated body temperature, the system responds with an audible warning and a flashing warning on a screen.

“You are advised to move them to one side, take their temperature properly and take the necessary action,” Hames said.

Part of that action usually includes questioning the person, who might be warmer than normal because they were standing in the sun a few minutes earlier and might need a few minutes to cool down before being screened again. On the other hand, they may be a legitimate threat if they happened to have just returned from an overseas trip and are displaying other symptoms of illness.

The prospect of staffing an entryway of a facility to check the temperature of hundreds of employees using handheld devices during a shift change at a food processing plant was a problem most companies have been eager to change. In this regard, Hames pointed out the investment in an automated system is offset by the savings of not employing the staff members to check temperatures. It also minimizes the risk of exposure to those people tasked with taking the temperatures, face-to-face with each employee.

As for the investment of the system, which Hames said is just over $20,000, he said it is a one-time cost for a solution that will last for years and implementing it as part of entry through a security gate makes it a seamless addition to most companies’ existing security process.

Compared to previous years’ pandemics, food processing operators, are looking for a more permanent solution, not a temporary fix, Hames said. In today’s environment most customers are willing to invest the resources to make fever scanning a part of the process of entering their facilities, not unlike metal detectors are used in many facilities. He said this shift of mindset has occurred over the past six weeks or so. For the short term, most companies are setting up temporary systems for funneling people through the system with plans to implement a more permanent solution in the future.

“They are looking at it for the longer term. They are looking to install these systems as part of their security screening, to protect their workforce,” he said. “That’s part of the change we’ve seen in this pandemic compared to previous pandemics.”

Future possibilities Hames said he anticipates occurring by users of the infrared monitoring equipment include the potential for companies to network its systems and collect the information at a centrally located control room where data can be monitored and analyzed.

In addition to working with Tyson and many of its subsidiaries, Thermoteknix is also working with many other food manufacturers in the United States. The company has seen demand for its fever-screening technology go from a handful per year to hundreds of systems per week. Shipments for larger orders requires about four weeks from the UK, with smaller orders shipping more immediately. 

“We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of systems we’re supplying into the states at the moment,” Hames said.