By Bart Biesemans and Christian Levaux

ANTWERP, Belgium (Reuters) – Workers in the port of Antwerp will next month begin testing wristbands developed by a Belgian technology company that could help guarantee the social distancing required during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rombit, also Antwerp-based, already supplies wearables resembling a sports watch that can warn workers if vehicles are approaching, provide an alert if someone falls into the water or control who uses what equipment or enters specific zones.

New software recently installed could help workers keep a required distance apart by giving warning signals if they come for example within 1.5 metres (five feet) of each other.

The developers believe it also could offer contact tracing if someone becomes infected with the coronavirus. The company or health officials can then establish with whom the person was in contact at work in the preceding weeks.

Rombit CEO John Baekelmans stresses that, for data privacy reasons, the app is not designed to allow companies to track the location of their workers. Devices merely communicate with each other not with a central server or the internet.

The port of Antwerp, where some 60,000 people work, was already conducting a trial with the wearables before the coronavirus outbreak and will expand the exercise to include the social distancing function in early May. The first workers to use it will be at a lock and a control tower and it could then be expanded to tug boats.

Rombit says it has already received requests from 400 to 500 companies from 99 countries and hopes to expand production to have 25,000 devices ready in weeks, potentially expanding more in June.

Baekelmans said logistics firms were among those expressing interest. There have also been enquiries from port and construction companies.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Giles Elgood)