How Technology is Creating Safer Construction Sites
By Ralph S. Barszcz on September 10, 2015
Construction is risky business. Preventing falls, eliminating blind spots and avoiding accidents are just some of the daily safety considerations on project sites. Historically, construction risks have stemmed from two primary sources: planning and communication. However, new technology has significantly advanced safety standards, helping contractors to plan safer job sites, improve collaboration and information sharing, correct safety situations before projects begin, as well as reduce costly injuries and delays. Here are six ways technology is creating safer construction sites:
From eyewear to watches and now even hardhats, construction accessories worn in the field are getting smarter and safer as a result. Google Glass brought the concept of smart eyewear to the mainstream in 2012, but industrial companies have been exploring ways to increase safety using the technology for decades. One company is taking things a step further. DAQRI, a Los Angeles-based startup, has developed a smart helmet that utilizes augmented reality, a user interface, as well as cameras and sensors. The helmet can load, record, store and share information related to safety and more. Smart glasses, hardhats, watches and other wearable items have vast possibilities for helping improve construction safety. Manuals and building plans can be read digitally without interrupting work. Hands-free safety checklists can be completed. Also, pertinent safety alerts can be broadcast and received in real-time.
Drones and Robotics
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are proving a valuable tool for improving site safety. They are predominately used for carrying out surveillance and reconnaissance tasks like recording aerial photos and videos, or even completing safety checks. This reduces the need for superintendents and safety directors to physically walk job sites, which can expose them to hazards. Some larger UAVs and robots are also starting to be deployed to haul heavy or cumbersome materials and in doing so, helping prevent injuries that can result when workers manually complete the tasks.
Similarly, Fastbrick Robotics has developed an automated 3-D brick and block laying system. The robot can read designs, load, cut, rotate and place up to 1,000 bricks per hour—that is a pace of one complete house in less than two days. While this bricklaying robot poses plenty of potential for increased efficiencies, it has serious safety-enhancing merits as well like reducing or even eliminating injuries the can result from manually performing bricklaying and masonry trades.
Turning digital files into 3-D printed objects is moving from small to large scale and the construction industry is at the helm of these advancements. The technology is being used to not only 3-D print components of a project, but also entire projects including bridges, houses and even high rises. There are a plethora of advantages to utilizing the technology, from faster construction to reduced project costs due to less need for human labor. One of the most profound aspects of 3-D printed construction is an increase in safety. When potentially dangerous skilled labor is replaced by 3-D printers, the risk for human error and the accidents that can occur as a result can be greatly reduced.
Software and Apps
There is an array of safety apps and software that exist today to help address some of the biggest risks facing the construction industry. As part of the virtual design and construction (VDC) process, modeling software visualizes and communicates all elements of a facility in detail prior to being built. Advanced planning is a key element to identifying site hazards. VDC allows project teams to evaluate risks before construction begins and prepares workers for project conditions by providing a visual representation of the site before they ever set foot on it. Since VDC incorporates models from architects, engineers, contractors, as well as other disciplines involved in the project, discrepancies between the models are identified and avoided. As a result, access patterns, fall protection methods, safe access for overhead engineering systems, as well as other safety concerns are addressed early in the process.
VDC technology has also paved the way for prefabrication, or the process of producing and assembling building components off site in a controlled environment. Workers are able to create components like walls and entire bathrooms in a safe environment away from weather, equipment and other potential site hazards.
Predictive Solutions’ SafetyNet, a program dedicated specifically to addressing construction risks, is another software platform creating safer construction sites. Considered the leading safety management system, SafetyNet streamlines the collection, analysis and dissemination of safety information and looks at data from job sites across the world to identify risk patterns and predict injuries. This software has eliminated the old way of conducting safety observations on paper, which could sit on a manager’s desk for days or even weeks before risks were addressed. Illinois-based Leopardo Companies, Inc., one of the nation’s largest construction firms, was among the first builders in the country to utilize SafetyNet. Along with other companies that have since followed, Leopardo is using the software to log safety observations from the field and measure how well their safety program is working.
Raken, a daily reporting application aimed at improving efficiency, is an additional tool being utilized by cutting-edge contractors who are harnessing new technology to improve safety conditions. It keeps project teams in constant communication and allows for safety notifications to be automatically pushed to the devices of team members regarding incidents, warnings or risks.
Whether you are in the office or the field, smart devices are the critical hardware complement to software and apps. These devices can be found in the hands and tool belts of virtually every contractor today, and connectivity puts hundreds of technology solutions quite literally within reach of construction professionals working in the field. Having access to phone, email and camera capabilities allow those onsite to document, collaborate and, most importantly, communicate safety issues as they arise.
Smart phones and tablets are just the beginning of what this technology will be able to do on job sites. Google recently released Project Tango, a mobile device with a human-like ability to understand space and motion. The 7-inch device navigates a physical space using computer vision, image processing and sensors to create 3-D models that can be instantly shared with project managers, architects and subcontractors. This could mean less time spent taking measurements and navigating potentially dangerous job sites, as well as the possibility of spotting and mitigating safety issues early.
Remote Connectivity and the Cloud
The backbone of all current and potential safety technology in the field is remote connectivity and cloud computing. It creates a mobile environment where superintendents and safety directors are free to leave their desks and move between job sites. As a result, they can better observe and mitigate unsafe behaviors in the field before they become incidents. Apps and devices also depend on network and Internet connections, as well as access to the cloud. Barriers to communication and planning are overcome when project teams have the ability to share information and interact in real time, which means problems get solved faster.
While cutting-edge construction companies will be, and already are, employing these new and emerging technologies to improve safety, there is risk they could have counterproductive results. Increased use of smart phones and tablets on the job could actually lead to inattentive workers. Another concern is that if technology fails, like losing connectivity, employees can potentially be left without the suite of tools they’ve come to rely on. Proper training, discipline and an ability to adopt without complete dependency will be crucial to the success of any safety program utilizing technology. The net benefit that contractors and their clients realize is threefold: better communication, great efficiency, as well as an undeniably safer project site.
Ralph Barszcz, CHST, CSP, MEng, is safety director at Leopardo Companies, Inc.
This article also appeared on Illinois Real Estate Journal.