How Tech Is Changing Workplace Safety

PROFIT 500 CEO Cody Slater created a high-growth tech business based on a desire to help keep workers safe

Written by Jim McElgunn

Getting your hand stuck between a vehicle tire and the rim causes pain so excruciating that you pass out. When that happened to a mechanic working a night shift at a vehicle-maintenance facility, no one was there to help him. After a while he came to, but he couldn’t reach his cellphone. His employer had no idea the staffer was in trouble until the man failed to call in, as all employees working alone are required to do every two hours. By the time the ambulance arrived, the injury was so acute that the mechanic was left with a badly mangled hand.

Cody Slater heard this grim story when the vehicle facility became a client of his Calgary technology firm. It disturbed him, but he’d heard many such tales before. As CEO of Blackline GPS Corp., Slater knows that workers who toil solo, such as stocking warehouse shelves or servicing factory equipment, face the risk of injury, even death. That’s where his firm comes in: its handheld devices, linked to a monitoring service that alerts an employer instantly if a lone worker is in peril, eliminate the kind of lag that cost that mechanic so dearly. Sales of the Loner line of worker-safety handhelds propelled Blackline to five-year revenue growth of 933%, putting it at No. 4 among Calgary’s Fastest-Growing Companies.

A huge pulp and paper plant became a Blackline client after an employee hit her head and fell unconscious behind some equipment without anyone seeing her.

The Loner is the top-selling handheld of its kind in North America, says Slater. Even so, 2012 sales totalled just $1.5 million, because this is a new market with a long sales cycle. But the company is gaining momentum. “We have 10 to 20 times as many clients in our sales funnel as we did two years ago,” says Slater. In response, Blackline is ramping up dramatically, with new products and a push into new sectors and geographical markets.

Several factors are driving this fast growth. For one, regulators are toughening up workplace-safety rules, which makes employers more aware of the risks. And since most firms want to protect all their people equally, they comply companywide with the strictest regulations of the jurisdictions in which they operate.

A second factor is that handheld technology is evolving fast. “I’m astonished by how much easier to use and more effective the devices are than they were just two years ago,” says Rick Chorneyko, an independent operations consultant in Campbell River, B.C. In 2011, a big petrochemical company hired him to advise on worker-protection technology. Chorneyko recommended Blackline’s products in part because “the device is so simple: workers just turn it on at the start of the day and off at the end, and they forget that they’re wearing it.”

Chorneyko identifies a third growth driver: more people are working solo. “With today’s technologies, companies can cut costs by having one person working alone do what three people used to do,” he says. “In a highly automated factory, you’ll have one guy in a department monitoring a bunch of equipment.”

This isn’t the first time Slater has built a worker-safety growth star. In 1985, while an astrophysics undergraduate, he founded BW Technologies Ltd. to make toxic-gas detection equipment that would protect workers in sectors such as mining and oil and gas. BW made PROFIT’s ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies for five straight years, and in 2006, Honey€‹well acquired BW for $555 million.

Slater is applying at Blackline many of the tactics that made BW successful. Two years after selling BW, he led an investor group that bought a big stake in Blackline. Slater first became chairman, then CEO in 2011, and placed BW veterans in many top jobs. He also shifted Blackline’s focus from a niche market in tracking devices—which clients such as the FBI and LAPD still buy to plant on, say, a known drug dealer’s car—to the far more in-demand arena of lone-worker safety.

Blackline’s flagship Loner SMD handheld is the size of a smartphone, can be worn on a belt and will survive a six-foot drop onto concrete unharmed. If an employee falls or doesn’t move for a specified period, the gizmo buzzes and sends a light alert to the worker, who touches a lever to signal “I’m OK.” If the worker doesn’t respond, the monitoring service follows a predetermined protocol, such as calling the supervisor or having an agent call 911.

The Loner’s GPS antenna—15 times as long as in most mobiles—gives emergency responders a highly accurate read on the worker’s location. And the device is the only one on the market that can distinguish between up-and-down motion (as when someone is loading a truck) and a fall resulting in, for instance, an employee lying prone on an icy road.

Miami-based Ryder System Inc. found these features sufficiently compelling to become Blackline’s biggest client. Bill Kotynski, senior manager of safety and loss prevention at the truck-rental firm, says online research and interviews with users of various systems convinced him that Blackline offers the best protection: “We made a sizable investment. But if that device works one time to save an employee, it has paid for all the devices multiple times.”

Still, even superb technology will flop if you don’t get the pricing right. Blackline consulted with potential clients before setting a price with wide appeal: $300 per Loner SMD handheld. It then designed the product so it’s easy to make and profitable at that price—the same strategy Slater used at BW. “We design our devices to be very labour-efficient,” he says. “Each one takes only 10 minutes to assemble, so we do that here rather than in China.”

Blackline looks for opportunities to develop new products that will meet a given client’s needs but also can be marketed to other companies. For a grain-handling firm with employees who work in tunnels that block GPS signals, for example, Blackline built beacons mounted along a tunnel’s wall. Each beacon transmits an ID for its location to a handheld so the device “knows” where that worker is. Although Blackline already had products that this company’s other lone workers could use, “they wouldn’t buy anything from us until we could protect the workers in the tunnels, too,” says Slater.

Blackline designed its beacons so it could deploy them at other clients’ sites. It’s now testing an installation of 200 beacons in a huge pulp-and-paper plant, which became a client after an employee hit her head and fell unconscious behind some equipment without anyone seeing her.

Blackline derives almost 60% of its sales from exports, says Slater. The majority are to the U.S., but the firm is diversifying into Europe, with the Middle East next. As well, it’s targeting prospects beyond its core base in utilities, factories and transportation.

To do so, the company is pouring money into product development, using most of the $4 million it raised in a 2012 private placement. One new handheld, slated to roll out by year’s end, can switch its connection with the monitoring service from cellular to satellite service in areas with no cell coverage. The key target: oilpatch firms with huge numbers of lone workers at remote sites. Blackline also is designing products to protect security guards on patrol, realtors and home-care nurses.

If these expansion plans pan out, Slater will have built another tech success story. He will have saved some lives, as well. But Blackline’s impact on worker safety is not a topic he’s comfortable discussing: “I don’t want to sound like some overly socially responsible whatever,” he says. He points out that he got into the worker-safety field at BW because of his interest in the technology, and he will happily talk your ear off about the Loner’s features and tech arcana. But asked about his role as a worker protector, he turns to unemotional generalities such as “positively impacting people’s lives” to describe his goals beyond growing sales.

Yet, when Slater tells stories about lone workers, there is no missing the sincerity of his desire. “You look at these incidents and you say, €˜We could have done something if we had been there,'” he says. “And that really drives you.”

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