Beyond Pen And Paper: Construction Safety Technology

Wearable devices, sensors, virtual reality, and drones are helping to bring construction jobsite protocols into the 21st century.

This article is contributed by Triax Technologies, a safety and communications technology company with a focus on advancing safety in work environments, specifically construction jobsites. The Norwalk, CT company recently attended the Associated General Contractors (AGC)’s Safety & Health Conference in Denver, where Triax Technologies president, Chad Hollingsworth, and VP of Risk Management at Suffolk, Doug Ware, spoke to attendees about how wearable technology is helping to transform site safety culture. Read more for a synopsis on what was discussed.

There are few industries as ripe for disruption as construction. With its changing structures, heavy machinery and equipment, variable materials, and often remote locations, technology providers haven’t given the construction industry the digital attention it deserves. And, secure, sitewide connectivity and coverage has remained just out of reach.

This lack of digitization presents itself in two key ways: the lack of total worksite visibility — automatically knowing who is on a jobsite and where they’re located — and the lack of effective, real-time tools to transmit and communicate important site, personnel, and safety information. Those outside the industry are shocked to discover that the majority of construction firms rely on manual paper and pencil headcounts to track time and attendance; visual safety checks to ensure no incidents have occurred; and air horns to signal an emergency.

Ironically, those in the industry agree that safety must be a top priority: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one in five worker fatalities in the private industry occur in construction, and nearly 40% of those fatalities result from a fall on the job.

This is especially troubling in light of the skilled labor shortage, growing construction backlog, low project margins, and tight timelines facing the industry. As baby boomers in the U.S. retire at a rate of 10,000 workers per day, and millennials dismiss the trades as a viable career option, contractors are forced to hire from a limited labor pool without the necessary time to evaluate their skills. On the construction site, lack of training and experience can have devastating consequences. Additionally, thin margins and aggressive project schedules mean that everyone wants work to be done faster, and safety can become compromised as a result.

Simply put, a safer jobsite is a more successful jobsite, which puts the onus on everyone involved in the industry to encourage and ensure safety protocols and best practices are followed.

construction safety
Safety systems that include wearable technology provide quick insight to jobsite supervisors on where workers are located at any given time.

The good news is that while safety has been a problem in the industry to date, technology is catching up to drive safety forward. The new ConstrucTech ecosystem, comprised of wearable devices, environmental site sensors, virtual and augmented reality, and drones, to name a few, enables general contractors, subcontractors, and workers to build smarter and safer than ever before.

Wearable devices, in particular, are being used to protect the industry’s most valuable resource — the workforce. By alerting site supervisors and safety personnel the moment an incident occurs, and showing where it occurs on site, help can be sent more quickly and the risk of compounding injuries declines.

Importantly, robust safety solutions will add value to all levels of the project, and give each stakeholder tools to take ownership over site safety culture. When supervisors receive automatic slip, trip, and fall push notifications, they can respond to potential injuries the moment they occur; when workers have tools to report site hazards or unsafe conditions without leaving their work area, they feel valued and empowered to stop work if necessary. What’s more, real-time, sitewide evacuation tools provide peace of mind and promote a proactive versus reactive approach to safety and potential emergencies; instead of conducting site safety orientations and hoping for the best in case of emergency, they can actively practice evacuation drills and adopt technologies that increase their chances of proper evacuation techniques if an emergency situation occurs. Connecting the jobsite and upper management enables enterprise-wide analysis and improved safety, security, and risk management practices.

Finally, real-time safety incidents create real-time coachable moments. When a supervisor receives a daily notification for a three-foot fall occurring in the auditorium of a high school expansion, for example, they are able to go to the work area at that time and witness a worker jumping off the stage instead of using the stairs. While this doesn’t lead to an injury or claim nine times out of 10, supervisors are able to reiterate proper safety protocols and open an engaging, two-way dialogue with the worker.

Leading general contractors, such as Boston-based Suffolk, are embracing innovation across their organizations. By nurturing “smart labs” that focus on identifying and researching emerging technologies and allowing pilots to test and evaluate such technologies, they set themselves up for cohesive, strategic national roll-outs and long-term success. By adopting a “try” mentality, they are able to expand their technological toolbox and advance preconstruction, scheduling, lean construction, safety, and quality assurance initiatives. In addition, by promoting a standard template that outlines hypotheses, identifies resources, establishes milestones, and tracks results, Suffolk is able to take an integrated, controlled approach to new tech adoption.

Knowledge is power, and across the construction industry, knowing is the first step towards effective risk management and response. Collecting and recording the who, what, when, where, and why of daily construction operations and site safety incidents enables proactive project management. A safer jobsite is a more efficient jobsite, and with the right tools, everyone involved in a project can build safer, smarter, and faster than ever before.