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By: Thomas H. Welby Geoffrey S. Pope Published: April 2019

Worker Safety in an Industry on the Brink of a Technological Transformation

Since World War II, productivity gains in construction have lagged far behind those in American industry, generally.  Construction has generally not fared well, either, in attracting “Millennials” (the youngest of whom are now in their mid-20s) to work in the industry, and one of the industry’s greatest problems at the moment is a persistent shortage of skilled labor.

Construction also continues to be near the top — up there with mining and logging — as one of the most perilous occupations.

While we can’t predict exactly where the industry is headed over the next few decades, we know for sure that there are major technological advances, already in varying stages of making themselves felt, that will grow, probably very quickly, in their impact on the industry.  While disruption is always part of the story when vast technological changes affect an industry or economic sector, for the most part we can be optimistic that, within years, current trends will produce opportunities for widespread innovation, higher-quality construction, big cost savings — and substantial reductions in construction injuries and fatalities.

Of all of the burgeoning new technologies, construction insiders expect that VDC tech (virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, building information modeling) is likely to have the greatest overall impact as to how projects are designed and constructed.  BIM has already arrived as a potent force, so much so that, in the near future, with the aid of AI-led design, building design will be less about drawing than about refining algorithms to successfully incorporate a potentially vast set of project requirements.  AI will do much of the conceptual heavy lifting — at a cost that will no doubt drop, with improvements in the technology over time — in determining (or presenting choices) as to how the project can be built to best fulfill its intended use, within the constraints of size, budget, and the site’s peculiar environmental, regulatory, and engineering characteristics.

While the construction-safety impact of BIM might not be great in the near term, there will likely be an appreciable impact, as the process will lead to the more accurate integration of building systems in project design, and a concomitant reduction of field changes — that, often, being on-the-fly improvisations, present increased risks of injuries to employees.  Eventually, modes of design will  no doubt be evaluated using AI to promote safety considerations, both in construction and in the use of the finished product, and those parameters will find their way into the AI algorithms that tie together all of the design considerations.

Augmented reality is another technology that is finding a place on construction sites, in a growing variety of applications.  “Augmented reality” means an interactive experience of a real-world environment, in which existing objects are "augmented" by computer-generated visual, auditory, or other perceptual information.  Its use in construction is still in the early stages, but will probably expand greatly combination with drone technology and artificial intelligence.  One way in which these technologies is already being used together to enhance project safety is that visual images from drones (plus cameras and sensors placed around the jobsite) can instantaneously be processed, with information selected by AI being made available to field supervisors and the rank-and-file via headsets, cellphones, and tablets.  Building defects, hazards, and employees failing to observe safety standards can more readily be identified, and AI can be utilized to select and report problems, and swiftly recommend remedial measures.

Detecting and disciplining safety infractions is essential to minimizing jobsite injuries (and OSHA citations).  A great many injuries and deaths in construction occur when workers have a momentary lapse in concentration, or cut corners, and fail to tie off, or go down into an unshored trench “for just a couple of minutes,” or overestimate the difference between the bucket lift and an energized high-voltage line.

Drone technology, those nifty flying robots with high-resolution cameras, are in widespread (and rapidly-expanding) use on construction sites.  They should prove to be a godsend in avoiding both injuries and OSHA citations, as the employer no longer has his internal enforcement eggs in the basket of a foreman walking the job once or twice a day, and peering up to see if everyone has his lanyard connected far above him.

Drones can now be deployed to survey, continuously, more or less the entire worksite.  They enable supervisors to not only keep an eye on employers to ensure that they’re observing safety rules, but to detect pretty much the gamut of OSHA violations as can be observed by a Compliance Officer happening to drive by.  The mere presence of drones (but only if coupled with some firmness in disciplining safety infractions) is a powerful deterrent to inattention, or “just this once” disobedience of safety rules, on the part of construction employees.

Robotics is another tech field already making a big impact on construction operations.  One use is that robots are part of the mix in integrated systems using rovers, drones, AI, LiDAR (which uses pulsed laser light and sensors to measure distances precisely) to survey jobsites, assess progress, and identify and report errors.

Robots are currently being used, among other uses on a constantly-growing list of applications, to guide equipment in excavating construction sites, move materials around the site, lay bricks at ten times the speed of a human mason, and even to tie rebar.

While, to be sure, there are concerns that the deployment of robots on construction sites will reduce employment opportunities, there are indications that robots will often be used to supplement human workers, and will work in tandem with them, often performing heavier, repetitive and hazardous tasks.  That, of course, will spare construction workers many injuries, as well as wear and tear on their bodies, and potentially extend their working lives.  Having robots to perform the heavy lifting may also increase female participation in the construction workforce.

Offsite building and the growth of modular construction is another trend that is re-shaping the industry, with significant implications for worker safety.

Naturally, to the extent that construction takes place indoors, and in a factory environment (rather than outdoors and twenty or thirty stories aloft) risks from falls, weather-related conditions, vehicular traffic, conditions that vary from site to site (e.g., the presence of high-voltage lines overhead) and chaotic conditions on a constantly-changing outdoor jobsite are reduced appreciably.

Yet another technology in limited use now in construction, but with vast potential for the future, is 3D printing.  Soon, it may become possible to “print” onsite much of the material going into a structure under construction.  Early successes on residential and smaller-scale projects are being built upon, to bring about onsite printing of progressively more, and larger, building elements.

The full range of safety implications of 3D printing may be hard to foretell, but since the transportation, storage, hoisting, and installation of building elements are all hazardous operations, printing materials closer to where they are to be installed has some promise of yielding appreciable safety advantages.

As tech transforms the construction workplace, there are grounds to hope that “Generation Z” workers, born after 1995, will be attracted to the industry in greater numbers than their older “Millennial” brethren.  “Generation Z” are looking for careers with good pay and advancement opportunities, and many are wary of incurring crushing debt for college, such debt being a major cause of pessimism amongst Millennials.

While Millennials as a group are certainly more tech-savvy than most of us Baby Boomers, Generation Z are even more so and, as tech transforms the construction workplace, there is potential for many younger workers to want to be a part of the industry.

Construction, after decades of stagnation in terms of productivity, technological advancement, and safety engineering, is about to make giant leaps forward.  It’s a great time to be a “tech geek” with a serious interest in construction.

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