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. The tech industry’s big players are developing construction-specific software, gadgets and robotics. Improved safety, better efficiency and reduced costs should not be far behind.
The sudden focus on technology in the construction space
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. 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.
The technology that is 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 the 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Reducing accidents with wearable technology
There’s more to wearables than FitBits and Apple watchers; 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.
Health and safety is a constant issue for all businesses, but especially so for the construction industry. For those employed on building sites, their physically demanding work involves dealing with hazardous materials and dangerous equipment every single day. Even when strict safety protocols are in place and everyone’s being as careful as possible, one small slip-up can lead to an injury. The above are the most exciting new health and safety technologies starting to emerge in the construction industry.