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Collaboration at the Crossroads of Safety and Technology

Leveraging what new technology has to offer calls for greater collaboration on the job site.
By: | October 3, 2017 • 7 min read

Rapid-fire advancements in technology can leave many business sectors with whiplash trying to keep up.

The construction industry, however, has largely been immune to tech disruption. The means and methods of erecting a building, bridge or any other structure have more or less remained the same over the years.

But change is on the horizon.

New technology — like building information modeling (BIM), wearables, and automated machinery — is growing more prevalent on job sites.

These modern tools promise to boost efficiency, help address the skilled labor shortage and ultimately keep workers safer. Construction remains, after all, one of the riskiest industries from a safety standpoint.

But new technology also presents new risks if not thoughtfully implemented. Project owners, contractors and workers all must understand how a piece of technology works and how it benefits every stakeholder for it to be effective.

To harness the promise of construction technology while minimizing its downsides, contractors and their insurers should adopt a collaborative approach to understand how new tools fit into a project’s workflow, which encompasses everything from production processes and schedules to safety and risk management programs.

“Technology is changing the construction industry,” said Tom Boudreau, vice president of construction insurance for The Hartford. “Without strong collaboration and understanding of a common goal, safety and a good work product can’t be accomplished.”

Technology Promise and Perils

Dennis Gardner, risk engineering director, The Hartford

Compared to traditional paper blueprints, BIM models provide a more detailed, interactive and 3D view of a project. Digitizing the plans has given way to more innovative building methods.

“With 3D BIM technology, we’re seeing much more off-site prefabrication being done in manufacturing warehouse environments,” said Dennis Gardner, risk engineering director, The Hartford. “This can reduce risk because much of the work is done at ground level, eliminating the need to put workers on ladders or in lifts.”

But getting pre-fabricated modules on-site creates unique challenges.

Pre-fabricated units that include interior designs should not be exposed to weather, which makes transporting, delivering and storing them risky. Collaboration is paramount to using these models effectively.

“In the past if your schedule was off by a day or two, there was typically a storage area for raw materials. But with a finished product that really should not be exposed to the elements, you have to be ready for when that unit arrives on site,” Boudreau said. “That requires a high level of coordination between the manufacturer and workers on site to keep schedules in sync.”

Wearables and GPS trackers similarly provide big safety benefits when workers and managers are on the same page.

A superintendent or foreman could, for example, apply geofencing to keep workers out of high hazard areas like elevated platforms if their work does not require them to be there. If a worker crosses the boundary, an alert may be sent directly to their wearable device, or to a safety manager on site. GPS tracking can also alert a manager to a worker’s location if they have fallen or otherwise injured themselves.

To some workers, though, wearing a tracking device can feel like Big Brother is watching, waiting to pin them for violating a safety protocol.

“Collaboration and communication is key to help contractors and laborers understand that the purpose of the technology is not to catch them doing something wrong, but to help them work safer and more efficiently,” Gardner said.

Automated and remote-controlled machinery can also improve safety by keeping workers away from high risk areas and activities.

“Semi-automated masonry machines can build a masonry wall semi-automatically with only minimal actual worker interface, reducing the risk of injury from material handling strains and injuries from falls,” Gardner said.

“Years ago if you were drilling in a quarry or on a construction project with a rock drill, the operator was standing right at the drill head operating the controls that applied the pressure, the rotational spin and the water control. Now that can be done remotely to eliminate the exposure to loud noise, the material handling of the heavy drill steel, and of course the exposure to silica.”

But any new machinery presents risks if handled improperly. The lack of labor skilled in operating new, high tech equipment — combined with inadequate training — exacerbate these risks.

Labor and Training Shortage

Tom Boudreau, vice president of construction insurance for The Hartford

“The economic downturn really diminished the training resources offered by vocational schools and unions, which leads to less trained folks coming onto a job site. That’s a dangerous situation from a safety perspective and also from a product perspective,” Boudreau said.

Younger workers also tend to learn differently, utilizing technology where their veteran counterparts relied more on gaining hands-on experience in the field. Older workers, perhaps feeling threatened by the new technology or newer and younger workers coming onto the scene, are at times resistant to help train them.

“We have been disappointed, in some cases, with the lack of willingness of some of the older generation to teach the new generation necessary skills,” Boudreau said. But where technology widens the divide between the young and the experienced, it can also provide a new training avenue.

“Some of the wearables show some promise in that they can remotely connect a less experienced person in the field with a more seasoned worker, who can help to troubleshoot whatever issue the trainee is encountering.” Gardner said. “In some cases, the wearable device can provide a live view of the situation at hand.”

GPS units, BIM models, and digitally automated equipment may also provide data on workflow processes and safety vulnerabilities. Gaining additional insight into these areas will likely prove critical as construction timetables further compress and the labor shortage persists.

“We have to shift to a proactive safety approach. We have to think about what risks we’ll face weeks or months ahead in the schedule.” — Dennis Gardner, risk engineering director, The Hartford

A Collaborative Approach

Leveraging what technology has to offer — from safer work sites to better data and increased efficiency —calls for collaboration on the job site.

This is where The Hartford’s dedicated construction risk engineering consultants take a leading role.

“We have to move from a traditional inspector role into more of a consultative role,” Gardner said. “We want to understand the dynamics of a company, their safety programs, and how they’re using automated tools or connected technology.”

Inspectors typically only spot point-in-time problems while they’re walking a job site. They don’t necessarily have insight into systemic issues that lead to safety shortfalls, or hazards the company may face in future phases of construction.

“Traditional inspection approaches are reactive and punitive. We have to shift to a proactive safety approach. We have to think about what risks we’ll face weeks or months ahead in the schedule,” Gardner said.

To help accomplish this proactive approach, The Hartford’s risk engineering consultants meet with contractors before a project even begins to identify phases of construction or periods in the schedule where risk may be highest. They discuss ahead of time what will be done to mitigate the risk, including evaluating the safety program. They can help project managers implement things like wearables if there is a desire to use them.

“The use of technology, especially the newer technology that’s been developed in the last decade, is eventually going to lead to much safer job sites,” Boudreau said. “But it all starts with a collaborative approach.”

For more on The Hartford’s construction offerings, visit https://www.thehartford.com/construction.

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This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with The Hartford. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.




The Hartford is a leader in property and casualty insurance, group benefits and mutual funds. With more than 200 years of expertise, The Hartford is widely recognized for its service excellence, sustainability practices, trust and integrity.

More from Risk & Insurance

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High Net Worth

High Net Worth Clients Live in CAT Zones. Here’s What Their Resiliency Plan Should Include

Having a resiliency plan and practicing it can make all the difference in a disaster.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 7 min read

Packed with state-of-the-art electronics, priceless collections and high-end furnishings, and situated in scenic, often remote locations, the dwellings of high net worth individuals and families pose particular challenges when it comes to disaster resiliency. But help is on the way.

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Armed with loss data, innovative new programs, technological advances, and a growing army of niche service-providers aimed at addressing an astonishingly diverse set of risks, insurers are increasingly determined to not just insure against their high net worth clients’ losses, but to prevent them.

Insurers have long been proactive in risk mitigation, but increasingly, after the recent surge in wildfire and storm losses, insureds are now, too.

“Before, insurance was considered the only step in risk management. Now, our client families realize it is one of the many imperative steps in an effective risk management strategy,” said Laura Sherman, founding partner at Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners.

And especially in the high net worth space, preventing that loss is vastly preferable to a payout, for insurers and insureds alike.

“If insurers can preserve even one house that’s 10 or 20 or 40 million dollars … whatever they have spent in a year is money well spent. Plus they’ve saved this important asset for the client,” said Bruce Gendelman, chairman and founder Bruce Gendelman Insurance Services.

High Net Worth Vulnerabilities

Laura Sherman, founding partner, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners

As the number and size of luxury homes built in vulnerable areas has increased, so has the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, including hurricanes, harsh cold and winter storms, and wildfires.

“There is a growing desire to inhabit this riskier terrain,” said Jason Metzger, SVP Risk Management, PURE group of insurance companies. “In the western states alone, a little over a million homes are highly vulnerable to wildfires because of their proximity to forests that are fuller of fuel than they have been in years past.”

Such homes are often filled with expensive artwork and collections, from fine wine to rare books to couture to automobiles, each presenting unique challenges. The homes themselves present other vulnerabilities.

“Larger, more sophisticated homes are bristling with more technology than ever,” said Stephen Poux, SVP and head of Risk Management Services and Loss Prevention for AIG’s Private Client Group.

“A lightning strike can trash every electronic in the home.”

Niche Service Providers

A variety of niche service providers are stepping forward to help.

Secure facilities provide hurricane-proof, wildfire-proof off-site storage for artwork, antiques, and all manner of collectibles for seasonal or rotating storage, as well as ahead of impending disasters.

Other companies help manage such collections — a substantial challenge anytime, but especially during a crisis.

“Knowing where it is, is a huge part of mitigating the risk,” said Eric Kahan, founder of Collector Systems, a cloud-based collection management company that allows collectors to monitor their collections during loans to museums, transit between homes, or evacuation to secure storage.

“Before, insurance was considered the only step in risk management. Now, our client families realize it is one of the many imperative steps in an effective risk management strategy.” — Laura Sherman, founding partner, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners

Insurers also employ specialists in-house. AIG employs four art curators who advise clients on how to protect and preserve their art collections.

Perhaps the best known and most striking example of this kind of direct insurer involvement are the fire teams insurers retain or employ to monitor fires and even spray retardant or water on threatened properties.

High-Level Service for High Net Worth

All high net worth carriers have programs that leverage expertise, loss data, and relationships with vendors to help clients avoid and recover from losses, employing the highest levels of customer service to accomplish this as unobtrusively as possible.

“What allows you to do your job best is when you develop that relationship with a client, where it’s the same people that are interacting with them on every front for their risk management,” said Steve Bitterman, chief risk services officer for Vault Insurance.

Site visits are an essential first step, allowing insurers to assess risks, make recommendations to reduce them, and establish plans in the event of a disaster.

“When you’re in a catastrophic situation, it’s high stress, time is of the essence, and people forget things,” said Sherman. “Having a written plan in place is paramount to success.”

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Another important component is knowing who will execute that plan in homes that are often unoccupied.

Domestic staff may lack the knowledge or authority to protect the homeowner’s assets, and during a disaster may be distracted dealing with threats to their own homes and families. Adequate planning includes ensuring that whoever is responsible has the training and authority to execute the plan.

Evaluating New Technology

Insurers use technologies like GPS and satellite imagery to determine which homes are directly threatened by storms or wildfires. They also assess and vet technologies that can be implemented by homeowners, from impact glass to alarm and monitoring systems, to more obscure but potentially more important options.

AIG’s Poux recommends two types of vents that mitigate important, and unexpected risks.

“There’s a fantastic technology called Smart Vent, which allows water to flow in and out of the foundation,” Poux said. “… The weight of water outside a foundation can push a foundation wall in. If you equalize that water inside and out at the same level, you negate that.”

Another wildfire risk — embers getting sucked into the attic — is, according to Poux, “typically the greatest cause of the destruction of homes.” But, he said, “Special ember-resisting venting, like Brandguard Vents, can remove that exposure altogether.”

Building Smart

Many disaster resiliency technologies can be applied at any time, but often the cost is fractional if implemented during initial construction. AIG’s Smart Build is a free program for new or remodeled homes that evolved out of AIG’s construction insurance programs.

Previously available only to homes valued at $5 million and up, Smart Build recently expanded to include homes of $1 million and up. Roughly 100 homes are enrolled, with an average value of $13 million.

“In the high net worth space, sometimes it takes longer potentially to recover, simply because there are limited contractors available to do specialty work.” — Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting, Private Client Group, Ironshore

“We know what goes wrong in high net worth homes,” said Poux, citing AIG’s decades of loss data.

“We’re incenting our client and by proxy their builder, their architects and their broker, to give us a seat at the design table. … That enables us to help tweak the architectural plans in ways that are very easy to do with a pencil, as opposed to after a home is built.”

Poux cites a remote ranch property in Texas.

Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting, Private Client Group, Ironshore

“The client was rebuilding a home but also installing new roads and grading and driveways. … The property was very far from the fire department and there wasn’t any available water on the property.”

Poux’s team was able to recommend underground water storage tanks, something that would have been prohibitively expensive after construction.

“But if the ground is open and you’ve got heavy equipment, it’s a relatively minor additional expense.”

Homes that graduate from the Smart Build program may be eligible for preferred pricing due to their added resilience, Poux said.

Recovery from Loss

A major component of disaster resiliency is still recovery from loss, and preparation is key to the prompt service expected by homeowners paying six- or seven-figure premiums.

Before Irma, PURE sent contact information for pre-assigned claim adjusters to insureds in the storm’s direct path.

“In the high net worth space, sometimes it takes longer potentially to recover, simply because there are limited contractors available to do specialty work,” said Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting for Ironshore’s Private Client Group.

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“If you’ve got custom construction or imported materials in your house, you’re not going to go down the street and just find somebody that can do that kind of work, or has those materials in stock.”

In the wake of disaster, even basic services can be scarce.

“Our claims and risk management departments have to work together in advance of the storm,” said Bitterman, “to have contractors and restoration companies and tarp and board services that are going to respond to our company’s clients, that will commit resources to us.”

And while local agents’ connections can be invaluable, Goetsch sees insurers taking more of that responsibility from the agent, to at least get the claim started.

“When there is a disaster, the agency’s staff may have to deal with personal losses,” Goetsch said. &

Jon McGoran is a novelist and magazine editor based outside of Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]