Safety is one of the core values nearly all contractors espouse in project interviews and annual meetings. It is something that is brought up nearly every day on construction projects. The traditional methods of documenting and managing safety are paper forms and Excel spreadsheets. These methods are lacking, to say the least. They don’t equip project teams with the tools to create and manage a proactive safety program. This leads me to wonder: How can contractors improve their safety programs through the use of new technology?
Safety workflows are arguably the most critical workflows on a construction jobsite. I say this as a former Safety Director who used to explain to employees that the reason for my job, the reason I was there to walk job sites, was to ensure that they were not injured or worse each day. To ensure they could complete their work and provide for their families each week.
I tell the story in many of my presentations that it was my fascination with technology and the desire to make the workplace better that I started to explore how technology could improve projects. When the first iPad came out I started searching the Apple app store with the keywords of safety, construction, and quality. I found a few initial apps like FotoIn, PlanGrid, and iAuditor to convert a couple of paper-based workflows that I was managing.
At this time I started to convert many of the paper-based safety forms the company required to fill out such as Tool Box Talks and Weekly Safety Inspections. As I started to experience some success with the field crew adopting the new safety app it made me wonder how else new technology could help improve safety workflows. Some of the early experiments that I conducted with #ConTech were:
- Using iPads for showing PowerPoint presentations to employees in the field as part of correcting unsafe actions, behaviors or conditions such as an improperly fitting harness, steep excavation walls, or awareness training for MSDS.
- Trying out a drone for conducting inspections for workflows such as leading-edge fall protection in formwork, roofing material installation, and window/envelope inspections. Rather than needing to get onto a ladder, scaffold, or aerial lift I could now conduct an inspection faster and safer from the ground.
- Testing the early versions of 360 Cameras for progress photos, RFI, and accident investigations. I could see the advantages of taking one “bubble” photo that shows all four sides of a room at one time to capture all the context of a scene visually.
Over the past several years, there have been major advances in technology that can be applied to the safety workflow in construction. One of the more relevant examples for construction professionals are as follows:
Photos & Machine Learning
The use of photos to better manage safety has been very interesting to observe. As the old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words” could never be truer. With the creation of tools such as FotoIn and SmartVid companies can now review photos and videos faster than ever before.
One product in particular, SmartVid.IO, has developed a sophisticated safety workflow originally referred to as the Glove Report that uses machine learning to analyze photos for construction workers not wearing the four basic PPE items on safety glasses, gloves, vest, and hard hat.
I have actually tested out this product with a challenging photo. I posed with a fellow podcaster on stage during Autodesk University in 2017. Neither of us was wearing any PPE (safety glasses, gloves, vest, and hard hat). The SmartVio platform found those eight safety issues, but also twenty-five more (by analyzing the crowd behind us!). The platform allows safety managers to review multiple job sites a day without leaving their office. SmartVid can even provide alerts for safety hazards to relevant team members.
Safety & Apps with Algorithms = Safesite
By converting to the use of apps to conduct safety workflows such as documenting a safety meeting, a heavy equipment pre-start checklist, or a site inspections construction professionals can generate useful data to draw insights from later. Just converting from paper-based forms to a digital approach will speed up reporting times to make faster decisions on corrective actions, increase the accuracy of the information being reported to the home office, and help management review macro-level decisions through the filter of project-level data.
Safesite was created to help contractors better manage their safety programs by utilizing a mobile app to document safety activities in the field that were collected by a web-based platform. By converting paper-based forms over to a digital mobile app, construction crews can complete safety workflows faster and share the data in real-time. Safesite has worked on real-time notifications for team members with features such as text messages (SMS) and emails to speed up reporting time.
One area that Safesite has experimented with is Artificial Intelligence to review the data generated inside the platform in efforts to predict possible future outcomes. The use of AI in safety is a fascinating topic for many safety professionals. What if in the future a safety platform such as Safesite could be used to first conduct routine site safety audits but at the same time deliver real-time analytics about company-level, project-level, and even task-level safety performance?
Sensors & IoT = SpotR by Triax Technologies
One of the more controversial applications of new technology, in regards to the safety workflow, has been the tracking of employees on construction project sites. This seems to be a long-standing cultural taboo for some odd reason. By this I mean, generally, construction workers do not like to have their movements and location tracked by their company.
New options that pair hardware with software such as the SpotR system allows contractors to monitor employee safety in real-time. This unique tracking technology works off a zoned mesh network that can detect the same level falls by employees from as little as six inches, such as a trip from moving off a rebar matt to a concrete slab. One early success of the system detected an employee sliding down handrails to exit a building multiple times per day.
The use of tracking technology has many benefits that can help improve the level of safety for employees working in the field. First, this type of tracking system can alert employees and employers if an employee has crossed into an unauthorized zone. For example, a hazardous work zone such as lead paint removal which requires training certifications, and PPE. Second, a digital tracking system can be very useful in an emergency evacuation of a building. If there is an emergency that requires all employees to exit a building this type of system can provide an accurate headcount of how many employees are still inside and may need to be rescued.
In conclusion, with all the new technology available today it is somewhat troubling to wonder why is it still more acceptable to buy a new quad-cab pickup with air-conditioned seats and an entertainment package rather than an iPad that could be used for inspections, new tracking devices to monitor employee safety, or sensors that can detect leaks? While the debate about whether we are heading towards a world more like Wall E or The Terminator will continue for some time, I believe that the recent breakthroughs in technology can only make construction jobsites safer.