Technology

Increase Construction Safety With Digital Transformation

A key component to enhancing worker safety is putting technologies in place that will deliver real-time access to data from the field so proactive steps can be taken before an accident occurs.
By A. Vincent Vasquez
August 14, 2019
Topics
Technology

This is the ninth article in the Precision Construction series, which explores the application of the Internet of Things to digitally transform the construction industry, with the ultimate objective of improving labor productivity, reducing costs and enhancing safety. The series began with Exploring Digital Transformation for Construction, followed by Simplifying Complex IoT SolutionsUnited Rentals Drives Efficiency & Excellence with IoTThe Solar Energy ProjectRobotic MasonryMixed Reality for Construction: Applicability and RealityTaking Environmental Monitoring to a New Level; and Digital Transformation – Enabling New Business Models for Construction. Articles generally follow the five-layer framework described in Simplifying Complex IoT Solutions, making it easier to understand digital transformation solutions. To learn more about the various technologies described in this series, visit PrecisionStory.com.

It’s no secret that improving worker safety on construction job sites is a huge concern. According to OSHA, nearly 6.5 million people work at approximately 252,000 construction sites across the nation on any given day. Overall, each year, there are on average 18 deaths for every 100,000 construction workers. Scaffold-related accidents alone lead to 4,500 injuries and more than 60 deaths every year, which comes at a cost of $90 million in workdays lost to American employers.

Regarding the impact to contractors’ financials, Gaylor Electric’s data shows that jobs with no safety incidents have an average gross margin of more than 20%, whereas jobs with a recorded safety incident have an average gross margin of less than 6%.

Reducing safety incidents can also help lower the cost of insurance premiums, which are based, in part, on claim history. Given a typical insurance premium may cost between 1% and 4% of the total cost of a construction project, and pre-tax, unadjusted operating margins for the construction industry are just 4%, lowering insurance premiums by enhancing safety will only strengthen the bottom line.

With improvements to worker safety at jobsites as a primary goal, digital transformation technologies are both currently available and in development in order to address potential challenges.

Safety Management Software

Traditionally, company safety programs are paper-based and reactive—that is, actions are taken only after a worker is injured. These types of programs do not enable safety managers to improve safety onsite because the data they need is trapped on paper and in file cabinets. In addition, there is no process to receive real-time notifications of risky, unsafe conditions before an accident occurs.

In response, mobile apps and safety management programs have entered the market, which remove the paper and enable workers to quickly and easily report basic incident information from the field. This becomes increasingly important with a distributed workforce. They have what they need in the field—including instructions and up-to-date forms—and safety management can get notified in real time. In addition, there becomes one digitized system of record for safety programs, allowing for easier compliance with OSHA’s e-record keeping requirement, which mandates that high-risk companies keep their incident reports and OSHA 300 logs both digitally and well-maintained.

For these programs to be successful, as is the case with digital transformation programs across all industries, worker engagement and adoption is a crucial element to success. Therefore, it’s important that the deployed safety management software specifically target the workforce and not just management. In addition, a successful digitization program often requires that the entire process be replaced, as opposed to periodic digital Band-Aids added to an existing paper-based workflow.

Fig. 1 SafetyTek Dashboards

One interesting newcomer to the field is a Canadian company, SafetyTek. SafetyTek’s workplace safety engagement platform makes safety transparent, giving workers direct access to the safety department, which increases the safety culture and opens communication for feedback. The system tracks worker behavior in real-time, creating accountability so that safety is completed on time. And, as a platform, it replaces aging paper-based safety processes so management gains critical insights into safety performance to implement policies that are backed by real-time and historical data.

Drones

Drones are already becoming fairly prevalent on the construction site. According to one vendor alone, DroneDeploy, its drone solution has mapped more than 30 million acres at over 400,000 jobsites in over 180 countries.

Essentially, a picture is worth a thousand words, especially if they are the right pictures. Drones are used to see and measure what’s happening on the jobsite, which is difficult to know in a purely analog world with so many moving parts. Drones help to answer questions like:

  • What’s out there?
  • What’s changing?
  • Are the right things being built at the right time and in the right place?
  • Are there safety issues?

Regarding improving safety, drones serve two important uses:

  • Inspections. From roofs, windows and sides of buildings to solar panels, drone-derived high-resolution imagery can be used to inspect for quality and safety issues. The use of drones enables general contractors to keep respective teams on the right track and communicate any problems. Drones also help reduce the need for workers and inspectors to utilize scaffolds, which are potentially dangerous. In addition, drones reduce walk time, allowing skilled laborers to forgo inspection jobs for skilled labor assignments.
  • Site documentation. Drone images provide side-by-side, before-and-after views, along with overlays of the current state of the environment using 3D models. This not only helps track progress for clients, contractors and subcontractors, which improves collaboration and planning, but also provides important visual data for the system-of-record regarding conditions on the jobsite.

Drones do not have to be expensive to operate, as there are many outsourced drone services to choose from. As an example, United Rentals offers a drone service through a partnership with Airovant.

Laser Scanning

Drones are not the only way for contractors to capture high-resolution images of the physical job site. Laser scanning is another available option. And although there is no "silver bullet" solution, some will argue that terrestrial laser scanning tends to gather more accurate contour mapping. Drones, on the other hand, tend to be less expensive and are a better choice when the area to be surveyed is large and out of doors. This is especially true if there are obstructions, as drones can cover a large area with only a single unit and a few batteries.

Crane Mounted Cameras

A third option to gathering high-resolution images is the use of cameras mounted on cranes. HITT Construction is exploring this option in areas where they have tower cranes. Crane mounted cameras can provide the same quality of image as drones, but can also provide a larger number of photos and data for a lower cost.

Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence

Although gathering high-resolution images is great for inspections and site documentation, they still don’t provide the real-time alerting of potentially dangerous situations. Learning and analysis products will emerge that include query technology and both supervised and unsupervised machine-learning technologies, which are subsets of artificial intelligence. The promise of these technologies is to improve worker productivity, as well as enhance worker safety.

According to Melissa Whitney, director of project solutions at HITT Construction, although construction is in early stages of applying AI at the job site, “the next step will be to merge real time 3D images of the jobsite and artificial intelligence to identify unsafe worker conditions in real time. One might call this a bit of Big Brother, or might I say Big Parent, taking over. But the reality it’s the right thing to do to keep the jobsites safer.”

Fig. 2 Doxel Autonomous Robot

One start-up taking the lead in applying AI to high-resolution imagery on the job site is Doxel. The company uses autonomous robots and drones to visually monitor every inch of a project day-by-day. The first use case is to apply artificial intelligence to the high-resolution images to improve productivity by monitoring how the job is progressing, tracking what has been installed and whether it’s the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. In a recent pilot study on a medical office building, Doxel says it managed to increase labor productivity on the project by a staggering 38%. That said, if AI can be applied to identify quality issues, it doesn’t seem a stretch that a second use case will emerge to identify safety risks.

SafetyTek is also applying artificial intelligence to improve safety through its development of SPENCE.AI, an artificial intelligence safety assistant powered from the SafetyTek platform. Spence.AI will work in three key ways to automate or even replace more processes in safety:

  • natural language processing will accept and perform requested tasks through text, email and voice;
  • deep learning pattern recognition will model past worker behavior to predict future behavior and create rules to take action; and
  • OCR/vision technology will accept paper documents and create the digital submissions for them through automated transcription.

ROBOTICS

In addition to the Droxel autonomous robot, there are other robots beginning to be deployed that ultimately enhance worker safety, while simultaneously improving worker productivity:

  • SAM the Masonry Robot. SAM is a masonry robot that can perform the repetitive task of brick-laying. Bricklaying is a manual, repetitive and very physically demanding job. SAM the Masonry Robot takes an immense amount of that physical labor and repetitive motion away from crew members, enabling them to work more safely, with less fatigue, at a lower risk of injury. Construction Robotics has found that using SAM reduces lifting aspects of the job by more than 80%, which helps to increase the overall health and safety of the masons.
  • Demolition Robots. Brokk provides a family of demolition robots that can be remote-controlled, which is a big asset for something as unpredictable and potentially dangerous as demolition.
  • Heavy-Lifting Robots. Heavy-lifting robots can be are more agile than cranes, as they can operate in restricted spaces and collaborate with human coworkers. MULE, by the same creators of SAM, is an example of these handy robots.

Exoskeletons

Fig. 3 EksoZeroG arm support limb

Although not necessarily digital, exoskeletons are available to enhance worker safety by providing arm support, upper-body support and full-body support to assist in lifting heavy objects and eliminating costly work-site injuries.

For instance, the EksoZeroG arm support limb, by Ekso Bionics heavy tools, feels weightless. Compatible with aerial work platforms and scaffolding, the EksoZeroG holds power tools weighing up to 35 pounds so workers can focus on getting the job done right. In use cases where workers are lifting heavy loads while on construction equipment, these equipment manufacturers might consider integrating arm support exoskeletons into their machines.

Upper-Body Support

Fig. 4 EksoVest upper body exoskeleton

Ekso Bionics also provides the EksoVest, an upper body exoskeleton that elevates and supports a worker’s arms in order to assist them with tasks ranging from chest height to overhead. It’s lightweight and low profile, making it comfortable to wear in all conditions while enabling freedom of motion.

Full-Body Support

In terms of full-body support, Sarcos’ Guardian XO exoskeleton is designed to augment human productivity and strength, while preventing workplace injuries. The Guardian XO exoskeleton can lift 200 pounds (90 Kg) repeatedly without exertion.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, back injuries are the second most common reason for non-attendance at work (the common cold being the most common). That study found that the economic impact of on-the-job back injuries exceeds $100 billion per year; the average cost of back injury-related workers’ compensation claims falls between $40,000 and $80,000 per incident.

Prefabrication

Prefabrication provides another avenue to enhance worker safety, as prefabrication construction is performed in a more tightly controlled, monitored environment.

Coakley Construction, a subcontractor based in Virginia, shifted to prefabrication by a desire to remove workers from potentially dangerous scaffolding, thereby making the jobsite safer. In addition, by building in their centralized warehouse, Coakley could build the exterior walls in a better-managed environment, one floor at a time.

Prefabrication has also improved worker productivity at Coakley. By using Autodesk Revit models and standardized procedures, the contractor has reduced the time it takes to layout out floors by 75-80%.

Summary

Deploying digital technology to enhance worker safety also leads to improved worker productivity. For instance, providing more transparency of conditions in the field to reduce the number of safety incidents through a safety engagement platform can lead to fewer hours missed by injured workers. Likewise, developing AI technology to identify quality issues early in the construction workflow can also be extended to identify safety risks.

Ultimately, a key component to enhancing worker safety is putting technologies in place that deliver real-time access to data from the field so proactive steps can be taken before an accident occurs. This is of the utmost importance as reducing accidents is not only the right thing to do to keep workers safe, but also makes better financial sense as well.

by A. Vincent Vasquez

Vince Vasquez has more than 30 years of experience in enterprise sales, marketing and engineering. Working with 20 industry leaders, he is the co-author of Precision Construction, which teaches the fundamentals of IoT with a focus on the construction industry. He is also the co-founder and CEO of PrecisionStory, which brings Precision Storytelling—a new and innovative approach to enterprise storytelling—to market. Vince has an MBA from Stanford University, an MS in Computer Engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University and a BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California, Berkeley. 

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