Is Technology the Answer to the Construction Industry’s Injury and Fatality Problem?
Technology options for the construction industry have evolved at a rapid pace over the past decade. Virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, big data trending, BIM Modeling, drones, robots and cobots, machine vision for hazard detection and decision-making, gamification, multi-function data gathering wearables, lone work monitoring devices and exoskeletons have become some of the common technology choices available to aid in improving worker safety and efficiency while completing complex, high-hazard jobs.
However, as the ancient adage goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Some of these technologies create new hazards that can cause more problems executing safe construction work than they solve. Construction firms need to find a balance in the progression into technological immersion. Is technology the answer to the construction industry’s injury and fatality problem? The answer is “it depends.”
The International Labour Organization estimates that around 2.3 million people around the world succumb to work-related accidents every year, corresponding to over 6,000 deaths every single day. The hazards associated with construction work (slips, trips, falls, burns, electrical incidents, material handling injuries, etc.) coupled with the construction industry’s cost, productivity, and performance pressures, has historically resulted in disproportionately high percentages of injuries and fatalities. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that there are approximately 150,000 injuries on construction sites, with approximately 20% of all U.S. workplace fatalities directly related to construction work.
According to a Pew Research Center study , convenience and safety fuels reliance on digital tools which, in turn, accelerates adoption of new tools and digital 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 digitalization to innovative technology are altering strategic business models, connecting people with services and requiring entire industries to reimagine the future safety of work.
In 2020, the National Safety Council reported that 53% of surveyed safety professionals disclosed using new health and safety software or mobile apps, and 29% reported using wearable technology. Technology entrepreneurs claim that when construction organizations use safety methodology or technology in construction, not only are safety metrics positively influenced, but an increase in performance and efficiency is also experienced. Despite the claims by technology entrepreneurs, survey data and anecdotal evidence put forth by safety professionals, construction deaths in the U.S. continue to be relatively stable.
Why then, implementing the latest technologies into the building process and the overall organization, therefore speeding up project time, saving money, and overall creating a better-performing structure, are these “great improvements” not being evidenced in worldwide construction safety metrics and technology implementations are falling flat? The World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Construction: A Breakthrough in Mindset and Technology report indicates that during the past five decades, most countries have reported minimal productivity improvements related to new technology in construction management and completion. Similarly, new safety-related technologies and tools have been developed, but the rate of adoption and subsequent successful implementation of these tools has been limited. The most conspicuous gap between emerging technology use for the reduction of incidents, injuries, and fatalities is the lack of foundational support to workers tasked with “boots on the ground” use of these innovations, coupled with inefficient or absent organizational management focus on a sound safety management system (SMS) framework and components.
Given this glaring foundational gap within many organizations in their SMS approach, it is important to ask whether deploying emerging technologies is a “cart before the horse” method doomed for ineffective implementation and results. The answer is “yes”, unless a strong SMS foundation and a well-defined organizational culture is present to support and fuel the internal paradigm shifts needed to bolster emerging safety technologies initiatives. Distinct, functional, and refined attitudes and practices associated with a strong SMS must be present to foster the trust and buy-in needed to truly embrace novel safety technology.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides guidance for “Recommended Practices for Safety & Health Programs in Construction” that focuses on foundational components of a safety management system (SMS) for any size organization. Together with the ISO 45001 (the international standard for health and safety at work developed by national and international standards committees), the expectation is firmly set that foundational safety program components and structure, including hazard identification and risk management efforts, are at the center of organizational efforts to reduce incidents, injuries, and fatalities.
A 2016 World Economic Fund construction industry agenda paper “Shaping the Future of Construction: A Breakthrough in Mindset and Technology” proposed the use of big data and analytics – algorithms that generate new insights from huge data pools that can be created on construction projects through the course of normal work phases. By exploiting mobile connectivity and real-time hazard identification and reduction, codifying methods of organizational decision-making concerning safety, organizations can cement real-time communication of SMS expectations and components and provide workers with tools and resources to amplify their impact on organizational safety goals. Although adoption of technological innovation has relatively been slow in the construction industry, going digital has since been shown to improve stakeholder communication, provide great accuracy in safety documentation processes and activities, enhance safety communication, reduce errors, and provide 360-degree visibility at sites of the hazards present that need to be mitigated in real time. It appears that the “missing link” between the readily available innovative technology and lowered injury and fatality statistics in construction is likely to be found hidden in plain sight – in the basics of digitized safety management systems that lay the foundation for knowledge and compliance.
One technology tool that may be the most intuitive first step to assist in laying the SMS groundwork with organizations is digitalization. Software as a Service (SaaS) digitalization directly assists with putting together the building blocks of the SMS framework in organizations that can be powered by decision-making tools which aid in decreasing human error through hazard recognition and risk reduction. While technological by their very nature (digitalization of recordkeeping, performance monitoring, and analytics-based decision making), turnkey safety-related SaaS solutions provide sound 5-M Model (man, machine, medium, mission and , management) approaches to streamlining organizational, supervisor, and line worker decision-making to aid in correcting failures in core precursors of incidents, injuries, and fatalities.
The addition of safety technology simultaneously can stimulate business performance, wellbeing, and engagement, but also most certainly brings radical changes to organizational culture and the worker’s direct environment. As a result, construction is a natural fit for blockchain-based (shared data) company-wide, project, and site management. With turnkey SaaS solutions, objectives for the organizational SMS and overall safety requirements can be made clear through organized, well communicated real-time data collection, management, and decision-making tools using a centralized database supported by an SMS performance algorithm. Classic safety management techniques can still be employed in concert with 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 celebrated for safe work outcomes.
A strong organizational decision-making foundation must be present in a construction organization to fully realize the advantages of the technological choices available and fully realize the safety-related benefits that these emerging technological advances offer. Solidification of the SMS framework and associated decision-making aspects of safety practices that reduce risk MUST precede the selection, purchase, adoption, and implementation of emerging technologies. To this end, safety-focused foundational SaaS solutions have begun to fill the gap of foundational safety management system, SMS structure building and stabilization for construction firms. By actively probing and understanding data, organizations can gain greater understanding of the factors affecting their baseline safety performance and turn the learnings into real advantage.
Technology innovations for safety have grown exponentially in today’s industry 4.0. As industry 4.0 shifts to 5.0, organizations are challenged to explore significant opportunities to decrease risks by gathering data from the real-world and transmitting it to the virtual world for decision-making. This shift cannot be achieved without decision-making and SMS components being firmly embedded in company culture around safety objectives. SaaS is the most promising vehicle for creating and maintaining the organizational SMS foundation upon which successful emerging technology initiatives can be layered with the goal of innovative improvements in worker safety, wellbeing, and reductions to incident, injuries, and fatalities in construction.