Digital construction improves conditions for those working on site and reduces the risk of injury. In our latest edition of Building Sight, we look at the increasing focus on wellbeing from a construction perspective such as how it could impact on the built environments we create, how technology is improving occupational health and the risk of psychological injury due to stress.
The drive toward digitalization and automation isn’t just about increasing productivity. It’s also about attracting the next, tech-savvy generation to the industry by making construction sites better places to work.
Already, new technologies are demonstrating the benefits that digital construction could bring to the workforce, whether through the use of robotics, wearable tech, virtual reality (VR), or 3D design.
In this article, we look at some examples and briefly consider what new risks these emerging technologies could introduce.
Any technology that reduces the strain on the human body could make a huge impact. For example, removing humans from back-breaking work can reduce injury risk, with back problems cited as the most common injury in US construction by the Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of North America.
Tying reinforcing bar (rebar) for steelwork is a case in point. It’s injury-prone and unpopular, and finding enough skilled people to do it is getting harder.
In 2017, Stephen Muck, owner of Brayman Construction Corporation, which builds bridges, roads, and dams, devised his “TyBot”: an autonomous robotic arm rigged to a gantry, which uses artificial intelligence and machine vision to locate where lengths of rebar need to be tied together at laps.
Muck estimated that the TyBot could save up to 50% of the bridge-deck rebar labor function, so he paid experts to develop a prototype, which demonstrated the concept’s feasibility.
TyBot has since been deployed on bridge projects. In April 2019, a second robot was unveiled (the “IronBot”) which lays rebar, another heavy manual task.
Such machines also bring commercial benefits, says Adrian Pellen, senior vice president and infrastructure segment leader in the US and Canada for Marsh JLT Specialty.
“Workers’ compensation for injury and illness adds significant cost to construction projects, with huge variations among different regions.
“In Canada, construction insurance premiums will typically comprise around 1% of a project’s cost for a large project but, in New York, where workers’ compensation premiums account for a significant portion of all construction insurance, costs can be as much as 12%.”
Technologies that heighten worker awareness on site are another fast-developing area. For example, networked wearable devices can monitor a worker’s fatigue or warn that machinery is too close.
Three current examples include: the Spot-r system by Triax, which tracks where workers are, emits alarms, and logs falls; SmartCap, which uses electroencephalography to monitor drowsiness in machinery operators; and Cat Detect, Caterpillar’s proximity detection system for plant.
VR can be used to raise awareness of potential hazards before a worker even gets on site through immersive site-safety training.
The Saskatchewan Construction Safety Association (SCSA) in Canada, an industry-funded training provider, launched “Hazard ID VR” training, which envelops students in a workplace scenario and challenges them to spot hazards in a game format.
“Telling people how to stay safe isn’t enough to overhaul a culture that has historically struggled with safety,” says SCSA president Collin Pullar.
The tool is very popular among young trainees, adds Pullar, which is positive because 25% of injury claims to the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board involve workers under 25.
Meanwhile, the use of Building Information Modeling (BIM) or advanced 3D modeling can improve how the construction of a building is planned.
As well as helping to avoid scheduling clashes that can lead to rework and unplanned activities, it highlights potentially hazardous works or sequencing to designers and constructors.
For instance, some constructors are using BIM to communicate to teams of workers before they physically start work on site. This helps to identify where the order of work could be improved or interfaces with other trades could cause problems.
Digitalization can increase cyber insecurity, as more of a company’s data floats around in the cloud or is transmitted from device to device. The potential impact to on-site activities could be just as great as for those in the office.
The industry needs to enter a steep cyberlearning curve as it digitizes, Pellen adds. “Insurers look at data on a retroactive basis, but in the aggregate.
The next level up is looking at a basket of different construction projects, particularly around worker injuries, and using prior loss experiences and predictive modeling to figure out where we’re having the losses, including from what geographies and which contractors.
This will help our clients isolate project participants with poor safety performance records, which was more difficult before when just looking at aggregated data.”
For instance, the proprietary web tool Data Navigator, developed by Marsh, provides its clients with unprecedented insight into their construction projects (see box).
Fed by data recorded during an owner-controlled insurance program, Data Navigator provides analytical and predictive modeling based on information including enrolment, safety observations, claims, and past project characteristics. By allowing clients to drill down by project, location, and contractor, the tool has also made it easier to evaluate the performance of particular contractors, enabling targeted efforts to reduce the potential for risk.
“It has been quite successful, especially on large projects in the US where these costs are extraordinary,” says Pellen.
“Data and analytics have allowed us to minimize clients’ full cost of risk and helped to eliminate too many bad apples that are at heightened risk of causing financial loss to projects.”
Data Navigator: a Success Story
A recent analysis of a client’s tiered safety observation system for a large rolling owner-controlled insurance program showed that 24% of its contractor population was receiving an A or B deficiency (all observations were coded A, B, C, or D, with “A” denoting a critical deficiency and “D” being the least onerous).
It was found that these A or B deficiencies were causing 78% of claims frequency and 72% of claims severity.
Not every A or B safety observation resulted in a claim, but the client concluded that a contractor receiving an A or B deficiency could affect overall project safety and its financial outcome.
As a result, A or B negative safety observations were an immediate flag on a contractor’s performance, and alerted the client’s project teams to the need to focus on individual contractors’ performance in order to reduce the potential for loss.