Is technology the answer to the problem of injuries and deaths in the construction sector?

Technology options for the construction industry have evolved at a rapid pace over the past decade. Virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, big data trend, BIM modeling, drones, robots and cobots, computer vision for risk detection and decision making, gamification, multifunctional data collection wearables, work tracking devices solitaire and exoskeletons have become some of the common technology choices available to help improve worker safety and efficiency when completing complex and high-risk jobs.

However, as the old adage goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Some of these technologies create new hazards that can cause more problems in carrying out safe construction work than they solve. Construction companies need to find a balance in progressing towards technology immersion. Is technology the answer to the problem of injuries and fatalities in the construction sector? The answer is, it depends.”

Widespread risks

The International Labor Organization estimates that around 2.3 million people worldwide die each year from workplace accidents, corresponding to more than 6,000 deaths every single day. The hazards associated with construction work (slips, trips, falls, burns, electrical accidents, material handling injuries, etc.) along with the costs, productivity and performance pressures of the construction industry, have historically resulted in disproportionately high of injuries and deaths. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that there are approximately 150,000 construction site injuries, with approximately 20% of all US workplace fatalities directly related to construction work.

According to a Pew Research Center study , convenience, and security fuel reliance on digital tools which, in turn, accelerates the adoption of new digital tools and platforms. This is especially true for the construction industry which focuses on detailed, well-executed plans for cost, scope, productivity and quality related to on-time delivery of projects. Emerging technology solutions ranging from data digitization to innovative technology are altering strategic business models, connecting people to services and requiring entire industries to reimagine future job security.

In 2020 the National Security Council reported that 53% of security professionals surveyed said they use new health and safety software or mobile apps, and 29% reported using wearable technology. Tech entrepreneurs say that when construction organizations use safety methodology or technology in construction, not only are safety metrics positively impacted, but there is also an increase in performance and efficiency. Despite claims by tech entrepreneurs, survey data, and anecdotal evidence put forward by security professionals, US construction deaths continue to be relatively stable.

Why then, by implementing the latest technology into the construction process and overall organization, thereby accelerating project timescales, saving money, and generally creating a better performing facility, these “big improvements” aren’t highlighted in the metrics and technology of Construction safety worldwide implementations are declining? That of the World Economic Forum Shaping the Future of Construction: A Shift in Mindset and Technology report indicates that during the past fifty years, most cCountries have reported minimal productivity gains related to new technologies in construction management and completion. Similarly, new security-related technologies and tools have been developed, but the rate of adoption and subsequent successful implementation of these tools has been limited. The most obvious gap between the use of emerging technology for the reduction of accidents, injuries and fatalities is the lack of basic support to workers tasked with the “boots off” use of these innovations, coupled with inefficient or no organizational management focused on a solid structure and components of the safety management system (SMS).

Given this apparent fundamental gap within many organizations in their SMS approach, it is important to ask whether the implementation of emerging technologies is a “cart before the horse” method doomed to ineffective implementation and results. The answer is “yes,” unless you have a strong SMS foundation and a well-defined organizational culture to support and fuel the internal paradigm shifts needed to sustain emerging security technology initiatives. Distinct, functional, and refined attitudes and practices associated with strong SMS must be present to foster the trust and buy-in needed to truly embrace a new security technology.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides guidance for “Recommended Practices for Construction Safety and Health Programs” which focuses on the core components of a security management system (SMS) for organizations of any size. Together with ISO 45001 (the international standard for occupational safety and health developed by national and international standards committees), there is a firmly established expectation that the fundamental components and structure of the safety programme, including hazard identification and risk management systems are at the center of organizational efforts to reduce accidents, injuries and fatalities.

A World Economic Fund 2016 Construction Sector Agenda Paper”Shaping the Future of Construction: A Shift in Mindset and Technology” proposed the use of big data and analytics, algorithms that generate new insights from huge pools of data that can be created about construction projects in the normal course of work. By leveraging mobile connectivity and real-time hazard identification and mitigation by codifying methods of organizational safety decision-making, organizations can cement real-time communication of SMS components and expectations, and equip workers with tools and resources to amplify their impact on organizational security goals. Although the adoption of technological innovation has been relatively slow in the construction sectorGoing digital has since been proven to improve communication with stakeholders, provide great accuracy in safety documentation processes and activities, improve safety communication, reduce errors, and provide 360-degree visibility into safety sites. present hazards that need to be mitigated in real time. It seems that the “missing link” between readily available innovative technology and low statistics on construction injuries and deaths is likely to be found hidden in plain sight – in the foundations of digitized safety management systems that lay the foundation for knowledge and compliance.

One technology tool that can be the most intuitive first step to help lay SMS groundwork with organizations is digitization. Digitizing Software as a Service (SaaS) directly helps bring together the building blocks of the SMS framework in organizations that can be fueled by decision-making tools that help reduce human error through hazard recognition and risk reduction. While technological by their very nature (digitization of record keeping, performance monitoring, and analytics-driven decision-making), security-related SaaS turnkey solutions provide robust 5-M model approaches (human, machine, medium , mission and management) to streamline the organization , supervisor and line worker decision-making process to help correct failures in the main precursors of accidents, injuries and deaths.

Radical change

The simultaneous addition of safety technology can boost business performance, well-being and engagement, but it also makes dramatic changes to the organizational culture and immediate worker environment. As a result, construction is a natural fit for blockchain-based (shared data) business, project, and site management. With turnkey SaaS solutions, goals for organizational SMS and overall security requirements can be clarified through organized and well-communicated data collection, management and decision-making tools in real-time using a centralized database supported by an SMS performance algorithm. Classic safety management techniques can still be employed alongside these methods, but the organization can benefit immensely from a more decentralized and agile approach, where transparency is high and all parties (especially workers) can be held accountable and celebrate for safe work results.

A strong organizational decision-making foundation must be present in a construction organization to fully realize the benefits of available technology choices and fully realize the safety-related benefits offered by these emerging technological advances. Solidification of the SMS framework and associated decision-making aspects of security practices that reduce risk MUST precede the selection, purchase, adoption and implementation of emerging technologies. To this end, basic safety-focused SaaS solutions have begun to fill the gap of basic safety management system, SMS facility construction, and stabilization for construction companies. By proactively probing and understanding data, organizations can gain a greater understanding of the factors affecting their underlying security performance and turn the learnings into real benefit.

Technological innovations for security have grown exponentially in today’s Industry 4.0. As Industry 4.0 transitions to 5.0, organizations are challenged to explore significant opportunities to reduce risk by gathering data from the real world and feeding it into the virtual world for decision making. This change cannot be achieved without the decision making and SMS components being firmly integrated into the corporate culture around safety objectives. SaaS is the most promising vehicle to create and maintain the organizational SMS foundation upon which successful emerging technology initiatives can be layered with the goal of innovative improvements in worker safety and well-being and reductions in accidents, injuries and deaths in construction.

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