Digital Transformation’s Role in Construction Safety

Digital Transformation’s Role in Construction Safety

Paperwork may not be the hottest topic in construction, but don’t dismiss it so easily.

Safety is the number one priority on construction jobsites and yet there’s still one risk that’s often overlooked. That’s because it doesn’t usually make it to the safety checklist. But not paying proper attention to this area has resulted in injuries, project delays and litigation. What we’re talking about is the paperwork on a jobsite.

The worker and subcontractor check ins, the daily log and simply knowing who is or was on a jobsite and what they were doing may seem like minutia until there’s a problem. At first glance, paperwork may not seem like the hottest topic to dig into but don’t dismiss it so easily. After all, ignoring it is how a lot of contractors find themselves in less than desirable situations that end up in the courtroom.

Imagine you're a subcontractor on a public works project and due to issues out of your control, the project goes from taking 13 months to complete to 26 months. Further, a portion of the project becomes designated a confined space, which further restricts your crew. After providing proper notice to the general contractor during the project, a time will come when you will need to submit a claim for inefficiencies on the project. To support your claim, you will need to show, in part, your predicted manpower on the project and your actual manpower on the project. This will be done through certified payroll, sign-in sheets and daily logs.

Now picture a worse scenario. A worker gets injured on a project. As part of its investigation, OSHA will want to interview witnesses and review the contractor’s paperwork showing its company-wide safety protocols, its project safety protocols, as well as the project documentation memorializing the construction work leading up to the accident. They’re also going to want to dig into safety certifications and attendance at safety talks. 

Digitizing Jobsite Safety Protocols 

Jobsite safety protocols don’t only apply to the physical act of building a structure. The protocols should also contemplate documentation of events, which requires creating legible, detailed information about the site and everybody on it. For anybody who’s ever visited or worked on a jobsite, you can see how easy it is to overlook the quality of the sign-in sheet. Nobody’s out to win a good penmanship award when the clipboard gets passed around in the morning. Then, at the end of the day, the last thing a project manager or supervisor wants to do is write down, in painstaking detail, what happened on the site to complete the daily log. After a long day, sometimes it’s hard to recall what you had for lunch, much less the actions of a dozen crew members along with deliveries, delays and changes in weather. But it’s important. And all too often, a contractor learns the hard way that they need to institute more stringent protocols around reporting on the project. 

New processes can be hard to institute, especially in construction. This issue has not been lost on tech entrepreneurs that see a huge opportunity in helping contractors make the shift to digital transformation. By using digital tools to streamline and automate worker check-in and daily logs, a contractor can get detailed, legible information that makes daily processes faster, more complete and more accurate. If there’s an event or incident where they need to prove their role in enforcing protocols, they can quickly search through the digital records as opposed to trying to locate paperwork stuffed in a filing cabinet or work truck. 

Digital Transformation Improves Jobsite Safety 

Construction is probably among the last industries to move to digital transformation. It makes sense when you think about the nature of the industry—it’s largely about setting a blueprint, building the structure and moving on to the next project. Digital transformation, on the other hand, is iterative as the GC’s business processes evolve from paper to digital in an effort to reduce unnecessary costs while increasing safety. 

Ideally, the information from those separate digital tools can work together to spot potential risks based on the project status, profitability and productivity of each task and worker. For example, having jobsite check-in data and daily log information flow directly into a construction project management platform can present a bigger picture of what’s happening and what to do about it. 

Despite construction’s late move to digital transformation, workers in the industry are interested in having digital tools on the jobsite if they make their lives easier. In a March 2022 survey on digital transformation conducted by the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) and Safe Site Check In, 95 percent of respondents report being more productive as a result of new technologies designed for the construction industry. Also, when it comes to construction technology they found most helpful, 72 percent said smartphone apps for managing projects and the workforce. This was followed by GPS Layout at 13 percent and drones and robots at nine percent. Other technologies cited include augmented reality and wearables, each at three percent. 

Digging into Digital Transformation Tools 

For contractors that see the value in digital transformation, the process may seem daunting at first. This is why it makes sense to start small with easy wins. The first and best place to start is on the actual jobsite. Why? Because this is where the contractor makes or loses money. It’s also the source of most lawsuits. 

Right off the bat, you can set up QR-coded digital check in on your jobsite. The whole process takes about 15 minutes, which is a lot shorter and easier on the eyes than passing around the clipboard. Depending on the check in app, you can customize the screen that workers see when they show up to a job. You can ask them to fill out their profile including safety certifications or you can direct them to a specific foreman or area of the jobsite where they’ll be working that day. You can also have all those details flow right into the daily log and ultimately into a platform like Procore, saving even more time.

While those are just two examples of construction technologies that have shown a real business value, it’s up to the contractor to determine which digital tools (and there are a lot) are going to be best for their business. The following seven question evaluation criteria can quickly determine if the technology investment will pay off for the contractor. 

Who will be using it? The tool should provide value to at least 10 percent of the workforce. 

How does the technology impact the bottom line? Does it make an employee’s job easier and by how much? Also, beware of hidden costs such as on-going maintenance, license fees and training. These can quickly add up and delay the ROI. 

Is the technology easy to master? For simple digital tools, workers should be comfortable within minutes. For larger, enterprise technology investments, the interface should be intuitive and have a low learning curve—mastery should come within three months. 

Can you customize the technology? It’s not about building a custom platform as that can be time consuming, costly and outdated by the time it’s complete. Rather, the question reflects how easily a contractor can make changes to the tool without requiring a complete overhaul. For example, a contractor may want to change the digital check in screen to comply with a client’s or a state’s mandates. That information is important for compliance and to legally protect the contractor if something happens. 

Does the technology address a current and real business issue? A lot of technologies are fun but might not immediately address a current business issue. You’ll turn your workforce off and delay your company’s digital transformation if employees see a contractor investing in products that may be viewed as jobsite toys. 

Does the technology work with other products you have or plan to purchase? Most digital transformations are built on the sharing of important information throughout the company. You want to be sure any technology investments make that sharing easy without requiring IT consultants or hiring additional staff.

Who’s behind the technology company? Construction tech can be a bit of a wild west as we saw with the shutdown of Katerra last summer. Do your due diligence on the technology vendor, their background and solvency as a business so you know your investment will be supported. 

Digital transformation in construction is not just about using more technology on the jobsite. It’s about replacing outdated processes, streamlining admin and protecting everybody on site. These days, with the construction labor shortage showing no signs of abating, workers speaking up in favor of digital tools, and the ability for a GC to reduce unnecessary costs through the use of technology, digital transformation is inevitable.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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