Building blocks of safety: Why technology is critical to creating safer construction sites

Construction sites are inherently dangerous, and with conditions changing daily from site-specific changes to weather conditions, it can be difficult to keep employees and contractors safe. In fact, 1,061 employees died working in construction in 2019. Injuries for the same year were recorded at 79,660, with falls, slips and trips accounting for more than 30% of all fatal and non-fatal accidents.

Technology-based safety equipment aims to create a safer construction work environment while protecting people’s overall health. Everything from smart wearables to drones and autonomous vehicles to augmented reality is set to revolutionize the construction industry. The potential is so great that “investment in US-based building technology startups grew 324% to nearly $31 billion” between 2017 and 2018 alone.

However, “the construction industry is not necessarily known for pushing the boundaries when it comes to technology or innovation. Overall, it’s a status quo industry,” explained Kishan Patel, vice president of products at HCSS. He went on to note that “safety is the biggest bucket where there is the biggest opportunity for improvement. It is also the space where there is the greatest amount of innovation happening in this space right now. It’s also the biggest place where a company can get the biggest return on investment.”

Digitization of processes opens the door to advanced technologies

The first major technology to transform construction site safety was the ability to digitize processes. The digitization of safety audits has had a huge impact across the industry. Project managers no longer have to pour data into Excel spreadsheets and charts, etc., to try to make connections and interpret trends.

Digitizing safety audits “helps to analyze huge amounts of past safety data from previous audits, incidents, accidents, injuries – and with artificial intelligence and all of that data can actually predict where an incident might happen based on the attributes, that you’ve added to a system such as project size, location, type of equipment used, the experience of on-site employees,” explained Scott Anders, CSP, CHST, director of safety at VCC Construction.

Having this information enables project managers to identify where incidents are most likely to occur and bring in additional resources to try to prevent an incident. However, digitalization of processes is only the beginning of the technological revolution for risk management in construction. The rapid development of wearable technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning enable the design and development of technologies that have the potential to dramatically reduce workplace injuries and fatalities.

Technologies designed to disrupt the construction industry

“Over the past few decades, I’ve seen construction technology evolve from rudimentary efforts like aluminum helmets to highly sophisticated building information modeling, virtual reality workspace simulations, and professional exoskeleton devices like passive back, shoulder and leg support,” said Steve Jordan, CHST, CSHO, STSC, Director of HSE at Flintco.

The following is a brief overview of some of the technologies being developed to help manage construction risks:

  • Virtual reality – VR is best used in training situations to avoid costly mistakes and the possibility of putting others at risk. Anders uses excavator training as an example, where new operators are typically trained on site. With VR, people can train in different situations without putting anyone at risk.
  • Wearable Tech – The evolution of wearable technology for the construction industry is nothing short of amazing. From smart boots to smart helmets and smart monitors to smart watches, wearable technology is one of the cheapest ways to integrate advanced safety protocols into existing processes.
  • The drones – Anders also talked about the popularity that drones are gaining, as they are extremely useful for assisting with inspections, especially when they have to be done at heights. Using drones for inspection can eliminate fall hazards. They are also useful in identifying hazards and taking aerial photos of jobs to mark progress or address challenges.
  • Telemetry wearables – They are designed to ensure that “the right people are in the right places at the right time for their role and that they don’t expose themselves to excessive risk or interact with hazards they simply shouldn’t,” explained Ian Ouellette, VP of Product, Triax Technologies.

And that’s just the beginning. Additional available technology includes self-driving equipment, robots, exoskeletons, and more. While future advancements will surely continue to take safety to another level.

“I think the future of safety technology is starting to disrupt the hard-to-reach, how people do work in their direct tasks or their primary work, right? I’m talking about hammer throwing. I think that’s where safety technology is going. Now it’s about changing behavior with how people perform their core tasks and real-time intervention in risky situations,” Ouellette continued.

Overcoming resistance to change with a safety-first mindset

Despite the many safety applications available, there are challenges in bringing the technology to the world of construction. On the one hand, the initial investment is significant. Second, there needs to be a shift in industry mindset – one that embraces the new technology and its potential.

“In some respects, the construction industry has been slow to adopt new safety technologies for the reasons you would expect. Cost can be a factor and resistance to change is another, thinking that if it ain’t broke why fix it is especially dangerous when it comes to safety. Waiting to fix gaps in safety equipment and adopt best practices can have disastrous consequences. And fear of the unknown can hinder progress,” Jordan said.

However, getting senior management and stakeholders to commit to fielding technology may be a matter of showing case studies and evidence that the return on investment will be worthwhile. In addition to keeping employees, contractors and visitors safe, technology can increase a company’s profitability and make it more attractive to employees by helping to address staffing shortages.

“Investing in safety tells your future employees and your current employees that you really care about them and their well-being. It helps reduce unwanted costs when it comes to fines or workers compensation. Lowers your EMR insurance rates, therefore improves your profit margins and runs a profitable project. And it demonstrates to potential owners that you are a serious partner to be considered for future work,” explained Patel.

Cultural change is on the horizon

Whenever something new enters the picture, there is a period of adjustment and change in mindset that occurs before it becomes habitual. By nature, people are generally resistant to change. It is no different when introducing new technologies to construction sites where people’s lives are at risk on a daily basis.

However, a study by the US Chamber of Commerce reports that they expect wearable technology to grow from 6% of contractors in use in 2018 to 23% in 2021. Clearly, the benefits of incorporating these advanced risk management techniques are becoming increasingly popular. And as it continues to be adopted in various forms, the technology will be able to demonstrate how it can not only help prevent injury and death, but also improve the overall health of workers.

Steve Jordan said it best, “keeping people safe is a daily job for everyone, it’s a process with no finish line.” So what does the future of construction look like? Only time will tell.

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