The construction industry has the highest number of fatal workplace injuries, with 991 deaths in the U.S. in 2016—nearly a six percent increase from the previous year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
If you’re a small firm thinking, “My workers are safe; it’s large companies taking on big projects that are at risk,” think again.
Recent advances in technology have the potential to revolutionize the industry.
If firms collectively adopt this tech and embrace new standards for safety gear, equipment and health programs, we could potentially eliminate the leading causes of construction worker deaths, saving 631 lives each year.
In this article, we highlight current and emerging technology construction companies can use to improve the safety of job sites and help save workers’ lives.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
WHAT ARE WEARABLES? Wearables are any “smart” device that can be worn and that uses sensors to collect and transmit data to and from the wearer via an app on a smartphone or computer. The term is not limited to smartwatches or bands that track personal fitness data and display notifications.
HOW ARE THEY USED? Wearable personal protective equipment (PPE) is outfitted with sensors that read information about the wearer and the wearer’s surroundings. This information is then transmitted to a system that tracks biometric data, GPS and RFID location, real-time locating systems (RTLS), environmental markers and more.
By monitoring a worker’s vital signs (e.g., respiration rate, skin temperature and heart rate) and their location in relation to equipment and hazardous areas around the job site, the wearable can provide early warnings of a number of potential threats.
Current examples of smart construction wearables include:
|Use case||Example technology|
|Bands/ watches||Monitor fatigue levels of workers and equipment operators. Using an internal 3D accelerometer to measure sleep and activity cycles, data syncs to a secure platform when workers arrive on the job site to predict fatigue risk.||Cat’s Smartband|
|Boots||Uses GPS, RFID, motion sensors and biometric sensors to track vitals, sense falls and alert workers to unsafe environmental conditions. Equipped with kinetic chargers, so the boots are powered by walking.||SolePower’s Smart boots|
|Vests||Uses RTLS embedded in vests to track asset location (e.g., workers, tools, equipment) and alert wearers of hazardous areas and potentially dangerous situations.||Redpoint’s integrated indoor GPS solution|
|Smartphone app||Detect sudden movements that indicate a fall. Two-stage alarm process, the first lets a worker know they have 45 seconds to manually cancel the next alarm, the second alerts their emergency contact and provides GPS data.||FallSafety’s Android and iOS app|
1. Overview of the data collected by SolePower’s SmartBoots
2. Self-powering, light-up SmartBoots, by SolePower (Source)
Two additional ways that sensor technology is used in construction include site sensors and geofencing. These sensors can read and “communicate” with workers’ wearables, but are also used in conjunction with the technology we’ll feature later in this article.
- Site sensors: Service companies, such as Pillar Technology, deploy sensors across sites and monitor conditions such as temperature, smoke, volatile organic compounds (VOC) levels and other environmental markers to ensure exposure levels are safe for workers. Contractors and workers receive alerts when levels become problematic.
- Geofencing: Create a virtual geographic boundary on a job site, enabling software to trigger an alert when a worker enters a hazardous area. Can also be used to map out a plan for an autonomous machine or a drone.
WHAT ARE DRONES? Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are either piloted by remote control or are autonomous (i.e., piloted by an onboard computer system).
HOW ARE THEY USED? Because of the ease with which drones can be outfitted with cameras, sensors and other data-collection tools, drone technology is increasingly being used for the following:
- Electronic distance measurement
- Capture high-resolution aerial images
- GPS and RFID location tracking
- Light detection and ranging (lidar)
Specific examples of how drones can be used in construction include:
|Use case||Example vendor|
|Terrain modeling||Topographic surveys, high-resolution images and GPS data can be used to create 3D maps of job sites, alerting contractors to dangerous work environments, (e.g., dealing with contamination or potential for contamination).||Uplift Data Partners|
|Inspections||Inspect unstable structures or hard-to-reach areas remotely, without putting workers in harm’s way.||Industrial SkyWorks|
|Surveillance||Use aerial imaging to ensure workers stay compliant with OSHA regulations and safety standards.||DJI|
1. Topographic map of a construction site
2. Aerial image of a construction site. Data collected by Uplift Data Partners (Images provided by Uplift Data Partners)
Autonomous Construction Equipment
WHAT IS AUTONOMOUS CONSTRUCTION EQUIPMENT? Autonomous construction equipment refers to self-operating or remote-controlled machines. In place of a human physically operating from inside the vehicle, this equipment operates through a combination of programming and data transfer between GPS receivers, transmitters and other sensors.
Remote-controlled equipment requires an operator on-site, maneuvering the machine via line-of-sight and GPS data. Self-operating equipment doesn’t require an operator, and can be monitored from up to 50 miles away.
HOW IS IT USED? Autonomous machines are increasingly being used in construction for two main purposes: Repetitive operations that require precision and operations in hazardous environments too dangerous for a human operator.
Automated equipment can be outfitted with diagnostic sensors that help monitor and optimize asset performance but that also exert more control over their assigned task. This helps minimize delays, reduce waste and improve the safety of workers.
ConstructConnect breaks down how self-operating equipment actually works into four key steps:
- 3D map of the site is created using laser scanners, total stations, mobile mapping and aerial imaging from drones.
- Civil engineers create site development plans that are converted to 3D models.
- The autonomous machines are then deployed on site. Sensors, cameras and GPS are used to track the equipment’s location on site.
- Software uses data transmitted from the equipment, the 3D map of the site and the 3D model from the site plans to instruct the machine where to go and what to do.
Real-life use cases of autonomous or remote controlled equipment include:
|Use case||Example vendor|
|Self-operating construction equipment||Machine (e.g., excavator, dozer or grader) used for site work. Three layers of safety features include: object detection and obstacle avoidance using lidar; geofence; and kill switch (one physically mounted on the machine and another that is wireless).||Built Robotics|
|Autonomous truck-mounted attenuator (ATMA)||Truck-mounted attenuators (TMAs) are crash trucks built to absorb the impact of crashes and are used to protect work zones along highways. Making them autonomous (ATMA) removes the driver from harm’s way.||MicroSystems Inc., in partnership with Royal Truck and Equipment|
|Remote equipment||Used for mining, dozing and underground loading as well as autonomous operation of haul trucks.||Caterpillar, Cat Command technology|
1. Operator using Cat Command to operate an autonomous wheel loader
2. Cat Command controls for a line-of-sight remote control system (Source)
Choosing The Right Construction Safety Technology For Your Firm
On top of being the industry with the most worker deaths, construction is the sixth highest industry for nonfatal occupational injuries, reporting nearly 200,000 in 2016.
Of those, 24,650 were construction laborer cases that resulted in days away from work. The median days away from work following an injury is nine days, based on age of the worker.
Don’t wait for a fatality to make a change.
Nonfatal injuries indicate unsafe working conditions, disrupt job sites and can delay project progress. Be proactive and take steps to improve the safety of your construction sites and the health of your workers so you can prevent both fatal and nonfatal injuries.
Adopting construction safety technology should be a critical part of your process. But before you can benefit from this technology, you need the correct safety procedures in place:
- Follow OSHA’s recommended practices for safety and health programs. It offers a three-step action plan to help you establish a program, train your workers on appropriate safety procedures, monitor performance and progress and then optimize operations.
- Educate yourself on OSHA standards, particularly those most frequently violated by the construction industry. In fiscal year 2017, the most frequently cited standards include fall protection, scaffolding and ladders.
Once you have the right foundation, you can invest in the right tech to support your workers.