How technology is improving safety in construction

17 January 2018

High end gadgetry has triggered a safety revolution on building sites, and not before time.

Forward-looking contractors are embracing new technology. Their projects – and staff - are bristling with tech.

Safety inspection drones hover overhead. And workers stride on site in light-up hard hats, checking the Google Glass-style visors on their headwear for real-time safety alerts.

Historically, construction has been one of the world’s least digitised industries. What’s prompted this sudden focus on technology?

Mostly because building sites can be dangerous places, and the injury and fatality stats are out of sync with 21st century workplace health and safety culture.

In Great Britain, 43 fatal injuries were caused to construction staff during 2015-16, a similar rate as the previous five years, according to the Health & Safety Executive. Annually, some 3% of the construction workforce sustains a work-related injury.

However by deploying technology at all stages of the design and build process, the fatality and injury numbers could drop down. And potentially so could insurance costs.

How injury claims are affecting main contractors

Employers have statutory obligations and a duty of care to their staff. A failure to address safety could result in injuries and fatalities, plus employers’ liability (EL) or third party liability claims that could have serious financial consequences.

Many contractors are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to settle such claims. And worryingly, catastrophic (more than £1 million) injury claims have risen in the UK. Read our 2017 Employers’ Liability Benchmarking Whitepaper for a detailed analysis of the sobering figures.

And costs are due to increase. March 2017’s reduction of the Personal Injury Discount Rate (PIDR) – which affects pay-outs to successful personal injury (PI) claimants – means that unless the rate is returned to a more realistic level, lump sum payments are set to skyrocket. This will put a dent in insurers’ reserves, driving up premiums and renewal costs.

How much does technology improve site safety? Currently, stats are not available. However, the tech industry’s big players, global corporations such as Intel, are developing construction-specific software, gadgets and robotics. Improved safety, better efficiency and reduced costs shouldn’t be far behind.

The technology that’s improving construction site safety

From augmented reality to 3D lasers, here’s the safety technology that’s getting contractors and developers excited:

  • Design stage: Identifying injury flashpoints before construction starts

Building information modelling (BIM) is an intelligent, 3D model-based process with huge potential. It allows architects, engineers and construction professionals to plan, design, construct and manage buildings and infrastructure efficiently.

The technology is being used to conduct pre-construction risk assessments and the execution of safety practices within the job site, too. It ensures teams make best use of offsite prefabrication, preassembly and other ‘prevention through design’ approaches. These methods help eliminate potentially dangerous trips on lifts and ladders during construction, and save thousands of work hours. 

Virtual reality (VR) is adding a new dimension to health and safety training. The technology gives teams the skills to reduce accidents by creating simulations of real workplaces and hazards. This allows users to familiarise themselves with dangerous situations without the risk of being harmed. Construction firm Bechtel is trialling a VR training programme, and it shouldn’t be long before immersive VR safety training is par for the course.

Augmented Reality (AR) lets planners and architects collaborate with clients and contractors in real time, adapting plans and processes at the design stage. By using AR, data and images can be overlaid onto physical spaces; this allows build information to be shared, leading to risk reduction. It’s especially useful for highlighting hazards in complicated processes. With AR-generated information, managers can identify pinch points in the construction schedule, too.

VR + AR: In the near future, both AR and VR will be used to scan physical buildings against designs. They’ll create a virtual image that, for example, workers can use to see where pipes run, or construction professionals (and even homeowners) can view to monitor progress. These 3D scans can be overlaid against the BIM design, too, to compare the original with the current build.

  • Construction stage: Improving on-site safety

Smart sensors are being mounted throughout construction sites, to detect and monitor unseen risks such as temperature, humidity, dust particulates, pressure, noise vibration and the volatile organic compounds that arise from an overload of varnish or paint.

The collected data is fed to backend systems that generate real-time alerts and longer-term risk level analyses. This technology monitors the changing environmental conditions across entire sites and then provides analytics to builders and contractors.

Sensors have a credible construction safety pedigree; Costain has been using electronic perimeter alarms to alert roadside workers when they leave safe working zones. Pre-dating the technological innovations of the past couple of years, they are a valuable safety application for highways contractors.

Software for streamlining inspections

Well-maintained equipment is essential for a safe construction business. But proving you’ve checked every piece of machinery to ensure it meets legal standards is time-consuming. Lifting equipment inspection software is causing a buzz in the construction and energy industries. Globally, about 6,000 inspectors are using it to speed up on-site machinery inspections, and to generate automatic compliance records.

Unmanned machinery

From futuristic vision to mundane reality robotic building sites are set to become the norm, thanks to companies such as Komatsu, a Japanese construction machinery giant that makes automated bulldozers. The company uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – aka drones - as ‘eyes’ for the machinery. The devices are mounted with technology that sends 3D construction site models to bulldozers, and other unmanned machinery, to plot their courses.

Additionally, the drones provide progress reports, offer updates on any planning changes that need to be made, and speed up logistics by monitoring deliveries.

In the UK, contractor Costain is leading the way in drone deployment. Its Aerial Solutions team won a Construction News Innovation of the Year award for its use of UAVs to cut surveying times. The devices’ functions include surveying large areas, either with standard cameras or more specialised measurement devices such as thermal imaging or light detection and ranging (LIDAR).

UAVs can also be used to inspect hard-to-reach structures in hazardous locations, and a 2017 Swedish study suggests they could be used to transport defibrillators to patients on large sites, cutting response times for individuals suffering from cardiac incidents.

Talking of drones…

3D lasers mounted onto drones are taking the risk out of confirming measurement accuracy. They save staff from the dangerous job of scaling partially constructed buildings, and can complete the task in minutes, saving time.

Drones fitted with inspection software can improve worksite health and safety drastically by pinpointing dangers and hazards. Tech corporations such are developing UAVs for industrial purposes, and they are set to be deployed throughout the construction sector as drone spec improves and prices fall. Inspection drones have led to an increase in security, too, monitoring for intruders, theft and vandalism.

  • Using robotics to protect – and power up - workers

Too many workers are suffering from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The rate of work-related MSDs in construction is 16% higher than in all other industries combined. And overexertion in lifting causes more than one third of these injuries.

Japanese constructor Shimizu is increasing worker safety with the help of technology, and has developed an arm-shaped robot that lifts 200kg reinforcing rods. Typically, it takes six or seven people to lift and manoeuvre long, cumbersome rods this size. The manpower is cut by half, and the effort reduced exponentially, with Shimizu’s robot technology.

Exoskeletons - wearable machines powered by electricity and/or human motion – are having a marked effect on construction safety.

In South Korea, workers in Daewoo shipyards are strapped into aluminium alloy, steel and carbon fibre suits whenever heavy lifting is required. The suits ‘reduce’ load weights by 40%.

Further research and development needs to be undertaken industry wide, to eliminate risks surrounding mobility and overloading. However, “…it’s just a matter of time until construction companies, unions, insurance underwriters and government organisations start mandating the use of exoskeletons wherever a job with heavy lifting or awkward conditions might cause injury or worse,” comments trade website Robotics Business Review.

  • Reducing accidents with wearable technology

There’s more to wearables than FitBits and Apple watches; construction is employing similar technology to reduce accidents.

Wearable products and responsive clothing are becoming standard work wear. Innovations include GPS-enabled safety vests that alert workers when they’re entering hazardous areas, and smart helmets with virtual visors that display job information, and warn wearers about changes in the working environment, such as increasing temperatures.

What’s the best safety tech for my company?

There’s little doubt that the new generation of safety tech will improve worker safety, and, as a result, insurance costs. Efficiency and productivity will improve, too. To reap the rewards, talk to your construction insurance broker about the most appropriate risk mitigation for your company.

How to source affordable EL cover

To find the most effective construction EL cover, contact a specialist, client-focused broker. They’ll have the market knowledge and technical experience to negotiate the most affordable deals.

Construction Employers’ Liability Claims Index: Download our annual report to review the impact of attritional and catastrophic injury claims on main contractors.

How Your Profits and Premiums are affected by the Personal Injury Discount Rate: See the impact a few percentage points could have on your bottom line, in the face of an EL claim.

For further information please contact Mike Johnson, Contractor Group Leader on +44 (0)20 7528 4759 or email mike_johnson@jltgroup.com

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