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The construction industry has inherently more risks than many other industries. According to a recent report from The Center for Construction Research and Training, 79,660 construction workers experienced lost workday injuries in 2019, with one-third due to contact with objects or equipment. This is not simply the cost of doing business. Innovative thinking, processes and products that eliminate, reduce and mitigate risk are appearing with increasing frequency. Construction stakeholders should take note.

For far too long, the industry has tried to fit the workers to the work, providing personal protective equipment and layers of policy and procedures in the hopes this keeps them from getting injured. While PPE, policies and procedures are essential, their use doesn’t create the transformational change most needed when it comes to worker safety. 

What then is transforming the industry? Two areas seem to be gaining the most traction and showing promise for a brighter future: 

  • technology to enhance worker safety on jobsites; and 
  • innovative approaches that are fundamentally challenging and changing the way things have always been done.
Jobsite Technology

When considering technology that can make a significant impact on jobsites, wearable technology is gaining increasing attention. Wearables offer a host of benefits and valuable insights that help protect workers on any construction project. 
Wearables can help workers identify when and where they may unknowingly expose themselves to risks that could cause injury or property damage. This includes assessing body mechanics such as push/pull, posture, overexertion, overreaching or overtwisting. Some wearables will alert the worker of at-risk actions in real-time while others may offer the worker a summary of their at-risk actions at the end of a shift. A manager can then have a follow-up conversation to coach on safe actions and potential obstacles or challenges to completing the assigned tasks safely. This technology can be used to refine pre-task planning to better address risk at a given point of a project.

Wearables can be used to notify an employer should a worker slip and fall or sustain an injury and become stationary, allowing for a more rapid response. This is particularly valuable if an employee is working independently. 

Another benefit of some wearables is the ability to monitor worker proximity to mobile equipment and of the equipment operator to know when someone enters their blind spot. Some wearables connect with the operator’s station so that both the worker and the operator are alerted as to the danger, allowing each to take action to prevent an incident. 

More recently, due to the pandemic, proximity detection has become a key feature to avoid the spread of COVID-19 on construction sites. Wearables will send alerts if workers get too close to one another and will also allow for contact tracing in the event of an outbreak onsite.

Virtual and augmented reality are other emerging technologies being used to improve safety. Augmented reality technology allows contractors to identify potential conflicts with constructability, sequence and schedule before those conflicts arrive in real time. The contractors using this technology can then revise plans and tasks accordingly to improve the process and reduce risk for workers. Virtual reality and augmented reality can be used together to enhance safety training. Workers can experience conditions like those faced on a typical construction project but in the safety of a controlled setting. This allows for more realistic training but in reduced-risk environments.

Additionally, drones have had an expanding use on construction sites. More than a toy, drones are showing their value as tools to conduct inspections, capture progress and identify risks that may not otherwise be readily visible. Certain inspection tasks that in the past required workers to work at height can now be accomplished with a drone, thereby eliminating the risk of falls.

Whether its wearables, virtual or augmented reality, drones or other technology, there are options available that can better protect workers, reduce personal and project risks, and should be leveraged as part of a continuous improvement process. 

Innovative Approaches

When it comes to approaches to work, prefabrication and modular construction are creating a paradigm shift in worker safety and health. When coupled with a team dedicated to relentless innovation and improvement, the positive effects are compounded. The saying, “work smarter, not harder” applies here. Instead of the traditional approach to construction—unrealistic schedules, tight budgets, work areas congested with personnel, material, equipment and activity—prefabrication and modular construction pull risk-intensive activities from the job site and places them in a more controlled environment that enhances safety, quality and efficiency. Once fabricated, the modular components are transported to the project for installation. When executed properly, this approach reduces risks to the workers and to the project overall. 

Using smart planning techniques and innovative manufacturing means and methods, the most innovative contractors are reducing the risks inherent in the traditional construction process while maintaining the need for the unique skills and capabilities of construction workers. Expect the pace of this innovation to increase as prefabrication and modular construction evolve and economies of scale kick in.

No longer viewed as fads or gimmicks, the best technologies and approaches serve to increase safety, efficiency, quality and profitability while reducing risk and improving the quality of life for construction teams. Buckle up—industry transformation is underway.

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