Construction Automation, Worker Safety, and the Proliferation of Multinational Projects
At PlanGrid, we write a lot about how software is the key to increasing productivity and achieving the best ROI in the industry through technology and construction automation. But a tool is only as good as the craftsperson who wields it. Really, it’s the people on the ground who are most critical to a successful construction project. Indeed, human beings are critical to the proper operation of complex, global projects. But as projects become more complex, are we overlooking construction site safety?
Just think for a moment about the intricate dance performed by workers on large-scale projects in order to complete them. To complete any complex project successfully — from high-rise towers and business complexes to stadiums and transport systems — people, equipment, and materials must be tightly choreographed. Every project requires multiple tradespeople to work closely together to erect steal or pour concrete amidst a wide array of equipment from bulldozers to cranes or even the more mundane power tool. In such an environment, a single misstep could result in injury or even death. Building skyscrapers or excavating tunnels are still some of the most dangerous vocations in the world even with all the safety precautions in place. In fact, construction tops the list for the most deaths by industry sector for the 2015 Census of Fatal Occupations, with 937 deaths in 2014 — beating out even transportation and hunting.
Beyond this, think about how this tight choreography is impacted by the proliferation of large-scale megaprojects and multinational projects. Projects are not only larger and growing constantly larger, they are being built in ever greater numbers. A recent study suggests that spending for global megaprojects has reached 6-9 trillion annually or approximately 8% of total gross GDP. Moreover, today’s construction projects are increasingly not bound by borders. Current global infrastructure demand is $4 trillion annually. If this trend continues, global construction will outpace global GDP by 2025. To be sure, the planning, construction, and operation of large-scale projects is drastically different than it was even ten years ago. Multinational projects, as an example, typically require the integration of large sets of activities and sub-systems across geographically dispersed areas and countries, involving many participants such as contractors, customers, government agencies and globally distributed work groups with different cultures, enterprise systems and leadership personnel.
And while this new paradigm brings increased opportunities for global construction firms, it also brings increased risks for workers on the jobsite. As projects expand internationally, jobsites get bigger. As jobsites get bigger, human beings undergo greater physical load and higher stress. But it’s not simply that projects are larger, they’re also increasingly placing workers on foreign soil with accelerated delivery. As Roberto Pons, CEO of Projectlab explains: “The complexities in today’s projects include: a multitude of international firms performing design, construction, and maintenance services, longer supply chains, thousands of workers in camps on foreign soil, and constructing along accelerated delivery.” Accelerated schedules, means laborers are expected to work faster, which increases the likelihood of mistakes. Communication and collaboration also become more difficult across multi site or multinational projects, making them critical factors for success. A single misinterpreted order can lead to many injuries. In fact, construction workers are also increasingly becoming responsible for their own protective equipment as companies try to cut back on costs. As a result, many workers on large, complex projects who cannot afford protective gear have greater exposure to health hazards.
But the cost of ignoring human capital extends beyond injury, loss of life, or hardware. A construction company that doesn’t make construction site safety a priority may also:
- lose its ability to attract top talent after an accident becomes public, especially during a skilled labor shortage
- incur ongoing costs (depending on municipal and state law ) or payments to the injured party or insurance company
In contrast, creating a safer environment for employees in the new era of complex projects not only saves lives and money over time, but also improves overall construction productivity. Accidents are still the number one cause of production delays and budget explosions.
If your construction firm builds large-scale, complex projects you should consider taking extra precaution to protect your workforce by making construction site safety a priority. Here are some best practices to consider if your company is in need of safety upgrades.
Best Practices to Improve Construction Site Safety
Reduce Risk on the Jobsite With Construction Automation
Integrated Product Delivery (IPD) has been identified as a great way to anticipate many risks on the job. The right technology in the field also drastically reduces risk. Recent innovations such as drones, self driving vehicles, and site sensors keep humans from having to manually take on the most dangerous work. When they do, exoskeletons and wearables protect their physical well being. Additionally, virtual reality layouts give teams a better view of a site beforehand to assess risk and create solutions before stepping a foot on site.
While exoskeletons, wearables, and VR all improve construction site safety, construction automation actually offers the greatest chance of improving safety for workers. Robots aren’t afraid of heights and, more importantly, they can’t die. Robots are also being used to perform grueling work that used to result in severe injury to construction workers over time. If you take a walk around a megaproject, you’ll probably catch a glimpse of robots drilling, digging, or performing an array of tasks faster, safer, and with more accuracy than a human being.
Construction automation also makes it easier and safer to inspect and monitor construction sites. Drones, who can work 24/7 unlike humans, are already hovering over jobsites, capturing details from remote or dangerous areas, making construction sites safer for human beings while providing automated computer systems immediate access to mission critical data.
As I noted earlier, communication and collaboration are much more difficult on megaprojects and multinational projects. And if accidents are more likely to occur when communication and collaboration is poor, the risk of accident due to poor communication is greater on multinational projects. In this respect, construction firms should consider providing devices, like smartphones, which allow fast and efficient communication among team members and equipping those mobile devices with construction productivity software. Productivity software created for the construction industry improves communication and collaboration, giving you an advantage when trying to protect workers. Ensuring that workers have the latest information and current documentation can help decrease accidents and injury.
Avoid Well Known Operational Hazards
No construction job is ever 100% safe. However, there are certain situations that are more dangerous than others, and fortunately, OSHA has already identified them for us. Some of the job factors that increase health risks to workers include the following:
- High temperatures with a humid environment — Sites that are devoid of shade may need to be restructured to keep employees from experiencing too much direct contact with the sun. In a humid environment, too much heat can cause heatstroke, lightheadedness, drowsiness and even hallucinations.
- Heavy equipment — If your workers need to employ especially heavy equipment, make sure they are not working in the sun for long periods of time. Additionally, make sure that no one employee is overloaded with gear. Avoid injuries by planning ahead.
- Certain medications and physical exertion — Does your company have a hardline policy about medicine and working? Even the most innocuous prescription drug can cause unexpected side effects when combined with extended physical exertion. You should never let an employee work who has expressed any negative side effects when taking a medication. Over the counter medications are also included, as many of them directly state not to operate heavy machinery after use.
- Low fluid consumption — One of the best investments that you can make in your on site workers is also one of the cheapest: water. Simply keeping everyone properly hydrated will help you to avoid countless possible injuries. Employees will be able to focus more readily, reducing the possibility of an unexpected accident. Some of the symptoms of dehydration include heat stroke, an inability to focus, and general weakness, among many other negative side effects.
Adapt the Jobsite for an Aging Workforce
Is your workforce aging? Odds are it is. The median age of construction workers in 2000 was 37.9. It’s now 42 in the U.S. However, in some construction trades, the median age is now 53.
Experience comes most readily with age, and experience tends to reduce the risk of onsite accidents. But metastudies now indicate that while older workers do experience fewer accidents, the injuries they sustain are more severe than their younger counterparts.
Construction companies can reduce the risk of injury to older workers by adapting the workplace to the needs of the aging workforce by using lighter materials, providing material handling equipment, and leveraging old-fashioned ergonomic principles to fit the work to the worker.
Companies can also use technology to create more flexible schedules for employees. For instance, it is now quite common for certain off site tasks to be done remotely, possibly saving an older employee the hassle of driving through rush hour traffic and enduring physical discomfort for a job that never really required an on site presence.
Take Extra Precaution with Notably Dangerous On Site Features
Trenching and excavation are among the most dangerous of all construction applications. Trenches that are unprotected can easily be fatal — a single cubic yard of the earth can outweigh an automobile. Cave ins are a constant threat, even with the best technology and precautions on site.
Companies should be especially vigilant when taking a job with one of these known on site hazards. One hazard that is often overlooked is the mobile equipment that is often used for one of these hazardous jobs. Everyone on site should be well educated in the operation of these machines. Everyone should be responsible for monitoring a certain area of the field for safety hazards, immediately directing others away from any potentially dangerous situation.
Create a “Fall Proof” Environment
There is no way to create a full proof environment, but you can take steps to create a fall proof one. Little investments like rubber padding on stairways can go a long way towards fall avoidance. Use mats on the floor or require spike shoes if you are working in a slick environment. Take note of local health code standards even if they seem like overkill in the moment. Not only will you protect your workers physically, but you also protect your company legally as well.
You may not require uniforms on the job, but you can set a standard of dress that improves construction site safety in the field. This may also include discouraging long styles of hair and shoes that create an accident prone environment.
Ensure Every Worker Knows Who’s Responsible for Health Insurance
Have the W2/1099 discussion up front. The distinction means a great deal when it comes to insurance and overall construction site safety. In general, the 1099 contractor is responsible for his or her own safety and health insurance, although this person may be treated like an employee in every other way. In certain states, the company can be held liable for injuries to an 1099 contractor if that contractor was treated too much like an employee.
The way that employees are treated, not the legal distinction for that employee on paper, is what matters to OSHA. OSHA inspectors potentially have the ability to immediately shut down or confiscate your job site for certain infractions of agreed upon standards. Agents may also conduct interviews in order to ensure that every worker on site is properly classified before work may truly begin. Make sure that every employee or contractor knows his or her situation in terms of health insurance, because it is usually illegal for anyone to be left in the dark. Your company will experience the worst of it.
Obtain the Proper Business Structure to Protect Workers
Make sure that you have the appropriate business structure to protect your business. Protecting your business is protecting your workers — if the entire operation goes under because of the legal backlash from an accident, then you likely do not have the money to pay for adequate medical service anyway.
Depending on the laws of your municipality or state, you may have to obtain a business license. These licenses usually require different levels of a safety audit, which you can use to your benefit. Learn where your blind spots may be in terms of construction site safety, and take on the third party standards as your own until you can determine a better alternative.
Understand Professional Liability and Insurance
A huge part of protecting your workers is to understand exactly where your liability begins and ends. A proper understanding of liability ensures that you will obtain insurance that will fully protect your workers if something unexpected happens.
Consider this contractor liability chart from the International Risk Management Institute (IMRI). You can use it as a resource to determine your placement in a professional partnership. From there, you can determine what your legal and ethical responsibilities are based on the law and local business culture.
You are better safe than sorry when dealing with the health of your employees. Although every construction company will need to tweak its safety measures for the projects it takes, following the general guidelines above to improve construction site safety will save your company money, time, legal hassle, and most importantly, the human resources that make your business go.