Improving Safety in Construction with Connected Technology

Improving Safety in Construction with Connected Technology

Real-time monitoring of conditions can protect workers and equipment from damage.

The construction industry is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous environments to work in around the world, with OSHA reporting that one in five deaths among U.S. workers occurs in the sector. And, according to the World Risk Poll, the second highest reported workplace injury rate globally (22 percent) was among those who worked in construction, manufacturing or production. In this high-risk context, accurate, real-time monitoring of safety conditions can protect workers and equipment from damage—ensuring everyone gets home safe and sound at the end of the day. 
With the advent of digital transformation and Internet of Things (IoT), connected safety solutions have upleveled programs from simple reactive compliance to proactive incident prevention. The construction industry is seeing an evolution in safety, with improvements in equipment and wearable technology helping to push the industry forward and drive down the number of preventable injuries and deaths that occur each year. Connected safety solutions are the bedrock of this progress. 

What is a Connected Safety Solution? 

Connected safety solutions are comprised of a network of cloud-connected personal wearables that include an SOS button or latch, person-down detection, check-in request and even the option of gas detection. When coupled with an online dashboard, these devices provide full visibility into the safety of facilities and workers. The data streamed as they’re used deliver powerful reporting capabilities to a manager’s fingertips, such as real-time compliance status—ensuring employees are using equipment when required, plus testing and calibrating gas sensors when required. This information can be viewed from anywhere in real-time without the need to wait until after a device is docked to receive the data. Further data analysis can also identify and predict potential hazards so corrective action can be taken before they become incidents. 

How do Connected Safety Solutions Reduce Risks to Workers? 

The easiest way to explain the many benefits of connected safety is to walk through examples from the field. Here are some common risks that occur in the construction industry and details of how connected safety solutions can reduce them. 

Connecting Workers Across the Site. A frequent scenario in construction is working at height—one of the largest contributors to occupational fatality statistics. As part of a connected safety solution, wearable devices feature sensors and functionality which automatically detect falls, lack of movement and missed check-ins, any of which could indicate that a worker needs assistance. This may be a scenario where a worker is wearing a harness with a fall-arrest system. If the worker falls, the fall-arrest device will engage to prevent injury from a sudden jerk at the end of the line, but the worker may still hit object on the way down or be left hanging on the line. A connected safety solution reduces the risk of the worker not being retrieved quickly. Similarly, the technology also benefits lone workers who may be spread across a large construction site with limited contact and out of view of other people. 

With connected devices, workers can also activate SOS alerts to immediately connect them to safety monitoring personnel in the event of an incident requiring assistance. And, if exposure to toxic or flammable gases is a potential risk during their workday, connected worker devices are flexible and can be configured to include single- or multi-gas detection capabilities. Real-time awareness of workers means safety team leaders are reassured, knowing that someone is monitoring each team on an ongoing, uninterrupted basis should the worst occur. 
Confined Spaces. Another significant risk to construction workers is a confined space entry (CSE), such as working in tunnels or trenches, or entering a storage tank or container where an efficient exit is limited or restricted. Hazardous gases can quickly concentrate to dangerous levels or displace oxygen in poorly ventilated spaces such as these, leaving the worker no time to react. In particular, brownfield sites may contain degradable materials that can generate gases. When construction workers perform tasks, like welders for example, gas fumes, dust and steam can be released into the atmosphere or can lead to excessive concentrations of heat, triggering explosions. 

Using connected safety devices equipped with gas sensors and remote sampling pumps ensures these areas are safe for workers before they enter and alerts them to evacuate if gas levels exceed safe thresholds at any point.  

Further, continuous monitoring makes it possible to identify gas leaks on a construction site, preventing potentially catastrophic incidents. For example, 24/7 area gas monitoring can detect if a piece of equipment or infrastructure is gradually releasing vapors into its surroundings, indicating a need for repair or replacement. In addition, many materials used for the construction of buildings can release toxic compounds (VOCs) and gas-powered equipment such as generators can produce carbon monoxide. With a connected safety system, the gas and VOC readings can be viewed in real-time using an online dashboard to keep an eye on developing dangers. 

Streamlining Evacuation Management. Aside from toxic gases, flammable gases released from storage tanks during demolition works for example, present a significant risk of fire and explosion. In the event an emergency does happen, connected safety solutions streamline reactive responses, making evacuation easier and faster. 
Safety personnel are alerted to sudden increases in the levels of hazardous gases, enabling quick evacuation of workers from affected areas, as well as checking that no worker is left behind. During an evacuation, team leads can account for the location of every person wearing a connected safety device in real-time to ensure they safely reach muster points, eliminating the need for time-consuming manual headcounts. And since worker locations can be viewed on the dashboard, assistance can be sent directly to anyone that doesn’t safely evacuate, saving critical seconds and making the difference between rescue and recovery. Additionally, because connected devices capture a variety of data, rescue crews can determine the appropriate response needed to an incident—whether it be a fall, no-motion or exposure to high levels of gas where full breathing apparatus may be required. 

Overcoming Complacency. We can probably all relate to the state of being “on autopilot.” Along with worker complacency—a by-product of habit—this tendency has been identified as a significant cause of workplace injury. 

Repeated actions taken over time without consequence embed the idea that those actions are safe, even if they are inherently not. Since five percent of accidents are caused by unsafe behavior rather than hazardous conditions according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, this represents a big problem in any industry, particularly where there is risk from operating machinery and collision with heavy equipment such as on a construction site. Workers do a job or perform a task automatically while not really thinking about how they are doing it, or whether it should be approached differently. This may be because they overlook risks associated with a particular task or haven’t been trained to take proper responsibility for their own safety.  

One way to help overcome complacency is to give workers digital tools to encourage awareness of their actions and the potential consequences, leading to them correct their behavior. Connected technology plays an important part here. Analysis of behaviors and incidents by management can drive fundamental change when data collected is studied to build a picture of what is happening and who is putting themselves at risk. By approaching the problem in two ways—at the worker awareness level and through data analysis—real improvements can be generated in terms of workforce safety. 

Predicting Safety Risks Through Data Analytics. On top of those identified above, unrecognized risks can exist in any working environment and cause worker safety incidents resulting in unexpected downtime and costs. Connected safety solutions coupled with data science and analytics can identify hazards before they harm workers or damage equipment. The ability to detect patterns through connected device readings allows safety managers and operators to take proactive steps. 
For example, repeat fall detection alerts in the same location may indicate a slippery surface. Taking proactive measures by cleaning, de-icing or redesigning the site layout can protect workers from serious falls and keep operations running smoothly and workers on the job. 
For scenarios requiring gas detection, all gas reading data from safety wearables is collected and streamed to the cloud, powering data analytics for visualization and insights into areas with potential risk. Gas levels below the threshold for alarms typically go unnoticed by workers until an incident occurs. But reporting on these low-level environmental readings enables proactive lead detection and repair. Preventative maintenance can go a long way to mitigate a potentially major incident in the future. 

Connected Safety to Improve Outcomes 

Connecting workers in dangerous environments like construction sites can ensure everyone is accounted for—at all times. Data analytics provided by a connected solution furthermore enable potential risks to be identified and incidents avoided, improving outcomes for workers in the construction industry and driving down the number of workplace injuries and fatalities year-over-year.  

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

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