Project Management Institute

A Sense of Safety

Sensors Are Improving Onsite Safety for Construction Projects

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On construction projects, safety saves—both lives and money. In the European Union, more than one-fifth of all fatal workplace accidents happen in the construction sector, according to the European Commission. The same rate exists in the United States, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In response, many organizations are incorporating sensor technology, including mounted sensors or clip-on wearables for workers, to improve safety on project sites.

On its project sites, Gilbane Building has implemented clip-on sensors to track worker location. In the event of a slip or fall, Gilbane can get help to a worker immediately. At approximately 39 percent, falls are the leading cause of U.S. construction worker deaths, according to OSHA. In Japan, Hitachi has developed devices that monitor construction workers’ positions and movements to determine if they fall or enter dangerous work environments. Of construction workers who have used wearable devices, 82 percent reported they had a positive impact on safety, according to Dodge's Safety Management in the Construction Industry 2017 SmartMarket Report.

“We believe this technology will help us identify when falls and unsafe conditions occur, and it will also help us in changing behaviors to help prevent falls and injuries,” says Donald Naber, senior vice president, director of risk management, Gilbane, Providence, Rhode Island, USA.

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—Donald Naber, Gilbane, Providence, Rhode Island, USA

Yet construction companies have to adjust this burgeoning technology to their specific needs—and make sure their workers buy into it. After all, wearables only work if people wear them.

Form Improves Function

Gilbane's sensors, developed by Triax Technologies, go beyond showing team members’ locations. The technology offers a whole suite of real-time digital visibility into project sites, workers and equipment.

For instance, the sensors can indicate the severity of a fall by tracking speed and distance. They also let project leaders know how workers are moving about a space, including if workers are lifting materials in a way that could cause injury or not using equipment at their disposal. Over time, improper repetitive movements can lead to worker injuries—and high costs for employers. Because of the sensors, Gilbane was able to communicate that project teams had to train workers to always use the right tools in order to avoid harm.

The technology “helps improve safety on our project sites by identifying unsafe behaviors and allows us to be proactive in correcting those behaviors before an incident occurs,” Rebecca Severson, vice president, corporate safety director, Gilbane, said in a press release.

As with any new technology, the sensors also had to be tested and proven through pilots. Gilbane first rolled out the sensors in early 2017 at a construction site in Connecticut, USA. It quickly realized the sensors were too sensitive—sometimes they went off when workers simply went up and down stairs—so they had to be recalibrated.

Take Two

Testing is also crucial on product development projects. U.S. startup Pillar Technologies tested and monitored early iterations to improve its connected sensor technology. Pillar's sensors establish a baseline of normal environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity and dust levels, and then alert companies to abnormal variations.

For its first version, Pillar mounted sensors on tripods throughout construction sites—only to find they would easily get knocked over. So Pillar redesigned the devices. Each sensor now has a magnet so it can adhere to metal, a strap so it can wrap around pipes or beams, and a hook so it can hang on finished walls. The technology is used within a site while a building is under construction, with the sensors placed roughly every 2,000 square feet (185.8 square meters). “This coverage allows us to create a ‘nervous system’ on the project to pinpoint problem areas quickly,” says Alex Schwarzkopf, CEO, Pillar Technologies, New York, New York, USA.

Pillar also leveraged stakeholder feedback to fine-tune its design. Early on, it culled its sensors’ data into lengthy, unwieldy tables. But customers wanted greater visualization. So Pillar also redesigned its platform to overlay the sensors’ data on top of the site's floor plan. Users can now click a sensor's icon, which then opens that set of data. “Now the whole experience is more interactive and more intuitive,” Mr. Schwarzkopf says.

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Gilbane Building has implemented clip-on sensors to track worker location.

In addition to identifying real-time environmental risks, such as freezing temperatures that can lead to bursting pipes, Pillar's sensors record data so a project team can prove it followed proper construction protocol. On one project, a building inspector claimed it was too humid to hang dry-wall. That threatened to stop work and throw the project off schedule. However, the project manager was able to pull up Pillar's data. That information satisfied the inspector's concerns around humidity levels and allowed the project team to continue work. “The data helped them stay on schedule,” Mr. Schwarzkopf says.

Working Together

Still, connected tech only works if the workers adopt it. To secure buy-in on its sites, Gilbane makes sensors a contractual requirement for subcontractors. Gilbane also communicates to subcontractors that the sensors only track their movements while they're on-site—not when they leave it. “We're not interested in tracking what they do when they leave the project site. We're interested in improving their safety when they're on the site,” Mr. Naber says.

To pre-empt pushback from workers, Pillar ensures its sensors are easy to install and to use. “The idea of sensors on construction projects is still relatively new, so education is a big component of what we do,” Mr. Schwarzkopf says.

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—Alex Schwarzkopf, Pillar Technologies, New York, New York, USA

Pillar also created a streamlined onboarding process, allowing project teams to be trained in less than 20 minutes. “We know that if it's not super simple, it will create friction with teams,” Mr. Schwarzkopf says. “For people who build buildings, the last thing they want to do is figure out how to use a complicated new tool.”—Novid Parsi

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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