The U.S. Department of Homeland Security in coordination with Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued an extensive list of what they considered “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s no surprise many of those workers are field workers where rugged tablets are a necessity for during their job under normal circumstances. From healthcare and public safety to utility, delivery, and service workers, the list of essential workers includes:

  • Law enforcement, public safety, and first responders
  • Food and agriculture workers (processing, delivery, and transport)
  • Energy, petroleum, natural and propane gas workers
  • Water and wastewater public works
  • Transportation and logistics
  • Defense industrial base workers

Frontline workers currently make up most workers in the United States, accounting for 57 percent of the total U.S. worker population. However, in 2020, only 49 percent of frontline workers have mobile devices, compared with 55 percent of information workers. That’s according to a mobile workers forecast from IDC.

Countless organizations with significant field support staff do not provide personal rugged tablets to each worker that are only used by them. That means multiple people over the course of a week or month may handle an issued work-related mobile device. Many organizations use the protocols put in place by healthcare to deal with keeping the workers safe and the devices disinfected daily. This includes protocols such as:

  • Disinfecting with specific cleaning agents and processes after each use before storage
    (70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe made for these devices and their screens)
  • Storage in sealable clear plastic bags between uses
  • Use of disposable gloves for workers handling the same device.

While this provides a measure of safety in eliminating transmission of surface-borne viruses including coronavirus, the device’s capabilities become equally critical in the COVID-19 era. Besides the health safety aspects, companies issuing mobile devices to their field workers have to deal with the data and device safety through comprehensive mobile device management.

While familiar consumer-grade mobile devices will work for a while, there are definite limitations of placing these devices within rugged cases. In particular, an add-on case may degrade over time and lose its ability to protect its enclosed device. This includes decreased ability to protect against impact and contaminants such as water which can destroy the electronics it penetrates the device case. Connections to external peripherals, typically via a USB port, our largely unconstrained, can vibrate lose over time, and can damage the connector due force applied through the mating cable. Overlayed screen protectors typically provide less impact protection than a rugged display built into a device designed for ruggedness.

Having custom made tablets or handheld devices that are purpose built as rugged tablets means a fit to specific needs, longer device life and lower total cost of ownership. But beyond this are the very important aspects of the computing features of the device which can be highly specific for field workers in the COVID-19 era. Just a few of the important capabilities are:

  • Enhanced GPS for mapping/navigation or other geographic information system (GIS) technologies for integration with dispatch apps or asset location
  • Multiple wireless options and alternatives for wireless inaccessibility areas (such as the potential for satellite communications)
  • IP-rated connection ports and truly rugged expansion ports (using rugged connectors)
  • Sunlight readable displays that enable easy readability in all lighting conditions, including direct sun glare
  • Constructed with materials that accommodate a wide range of cleaners and disinfectants (including soapy water, alcohol, bleach, and other chemicals)

Applications range from mobile field data collection, to field service, to health safety, to remote visual assistance apps supporting faster service call resolution, and much more. A rugged Android tablet is typically the most versatile choice as the basis for custom made tablets that can accommodate the widest variety of application compatibility.

The bottom line is with the changes to the way field workers must work in the COVID-19 era, rugged tablets and other handheld devices must be highly adaptable to environment and compute needs, as well as the safety and welfare of the operator.